Intermediate+ Word of the Day: mess

mess (noun, verb) /mɛs/ LISTEN

My apartment is a mess!

A mess is a disorderly or dirty state or thing. When we call someone a mess, we mean that his or her life is in a state of confusion or disorganization. A mess is also an untidy jumble of things, and it can mean ‘trouble or an unpleasant situation.’ As a verb with the adverb up, to mess means ‘to make something dirty or untidy’ and also ‘to ruin something’ or ‘to make something fail.’

Example sentences

  • Judith is always telling her children off because their rooms are a mess.
  • Paul has been a mess since his wife left him.
  • A mess of papers was strewn across the desk.
  • So half the workforce is off sick and we have a huge order to fill by the end of the week? What a mess!
  • Don't touch my hair; I've just had it done and you'll mess it up.
  • We were going on a picnic, but the terrible weather messed up our plans.
  • The diplomat was inexperienced and messed up the negotiations.

Words often used with mess

mess around: waste time. Example: “Stop messing around and help us put the tent up.”

mess around with somebody/something: get involved with. Example: “Mark was a nice young man until he started messing around with drugs.”

mess with something: meddle, get involved when you shouldn’t. Example: “I don’t care what Kevin said about me behind my back; stop trying to mess with our relationship.”

mess with somebody: get on the wrong side of. Example: “That guy is always getting into fights. He’s not someone you want to mess with.”

In pop culture

The Mess Around is an African-American dance. You can read more about it by clicking here, and hear Ray Charles encouraging people to do this dance in his song of the same name:

Additional information

In military terms, a mess is a group of people taking a meal together, and also the meal itself. And a mess hall (also called a mess deck aboard ships), or sometimes simply the mess, is an area where military personnel socialize, eat, and sometimes live.

Other forms

messy (adjective)


Mess dates back to the late 13th century, as the Middle English mes, which meant ‘food for one meal.’ It comes from the Old French mes (a course at a meal), and can be traced back to the Late Latin missus, meaning ‘what is sent’ (in other words, ‘what is put on the table’), a noun use of the past participle of the Latin verb mittere (to put in place). The verb comes from the noun and first appeared in the 14th century. The meaning of ‘communal eating place’ dates back to the 16th century. Interestingly, the most common meanings now are the most recent, and all come from American English. ‘To make a mess’ dates back to the mid-19th century, and ‘to interfere with’ is from the early 20th century. The phrasal verb mess with was first used less than 100 years ago, in 1933.

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