Monday, February 6, 2012

run for the ages

(a version of this article appeared in the april edition of lexpert)

Run for the Ages


Howard Richler

The longest entry in the OED2 was for the verb set which required 60,000 words to describe some 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the OED3 in sequence starting from M, the longest entry became make in 2000, then put in 2007.” Wikipedia

As of 2011, there is a new ruler in the lexicographical world “run.”

The OED shows 82 distinct definitions of run as a verb and 51 separate ones of the word as a noun but this is only one chapter of the story. In fact, in its primary meaning of “senses relating to locomotion involving the use of the legs, and uses deriving from these,” it shows no less than a dozen forms. Not only, does it mean “to go with quick steps on alternate feet,” it also has eleven more sub-meanings in just this one category including the use of the tongue, riding on horseback and “to partake of the leg (as opposed to the wing) of a cooked chicken or other fowl.”

This stll leaves 81 verbal definitions that include “running for office,” (politics), “running the bank,” (making a sudden demand for funds), “running the ball” (football and rugby), “running the scent” (hunting) “running goods,” (smuggling) “run of a show,” (play, film or exhibition) “running a cornice,” (buliding) and “run in families” (familial traits). There are also many senses that relate to functionality such as “run a test,” “run a machine,” “run a business,” and “run a country” and over forty senses that

deal with liquids.

Run is also quite prolific as a noun and aside from the many well-known sports senses it enjoys, there are also nautical, musical, and mining meaning. Even more obscure is its use as a term for an abode of a bower bird. When pluralized and used with the definite article it refers to diarrhoea. There are also countless idiomatic “run” expressions such an “running a table” in billiards, “running off” to be married, “running down the clock” at a sporting event, “running off at the mouth,” “running hot and cold” and “take the money and run.”

Recently, it took OED lexicographer Peter Gilliver recently almost a year to decipher all the myriad senses of the word run in the OED's third edition. Gilliver calculated that the verbal sense alone of “run” ran to 645 separate meanings and that the total number of words for the entry was “over 130,000” even more than Austen's beloved novel Pride and Prejudice which boasts 128,971 words.

Lest you feel at this point somewhat chastened by your lack of knowledge of so many of the senses of “run,” it should be pointed out that some of them are obsolete.

For example, definition #26 of run as a noun is “fistula” and there is but one citation from 1648 and definition # 9 as a noun “the fact of being visited by customers” is last recored in 1846. Similarly, the verbal sense of getting something hastily carried through is shown as a British colloquialism with only one citation in 1891. Also, some usages are strictly regional such as the noun use of run in Australia and New Zealand to refer to large open tract of land for grazing animals and the verb sense to refer to an uninterrupted period of sheep shearing.

In the OED's second edition completed in 1989 it was the word “set” that ruled supreme taking up more than “run.” “Set” was especialy more prolific as a verb; yet in a mere two decades it has lost its preeminence to “run.” How did this happen?

The answer is twofold. First, whereas in the past people would use “set” often for the placing of objects, in recent years we are more likely instead to use the verb “put.” Secondly, “run” is one of the dominant verbs of the cyber age; when we execute a computer program, we “run” it. It's logical that this computer use of run has led to our proclivity to employ the word in other spheres. But to a greater extent I believe that the increased use of run, compared to the demise of set, reflects a victory of flux over stasis. In our helter-skelter world run reflects our constant frenetic activity. Whereas set might represent a past that was more staid and perhaps classier, run represents a more athletic, sexier future.

The sun has set on “set.” May the new lexicographic emperor have a long run.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

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