Has 'Run' Run Amok? It Has 645 Meanings ... So Far One three-letter word does much of the heavy lifting in the English language. The little word "run" — in its verb form alone — has 645 distinct meanings. Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, explains the rise of "run" and the decline of a formerly rich word, "set."

Has 'Run' Run Amok? It Has 645 Meanings ... So Far

Has 'Run' Run Amok? It Has 645 Meanings ... So Far

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One three-letter word does much of the heavy lifting in the English language. The little word "run" — in its verb form alone — has 645 distinct meanings. Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, explains the rise of "run" and the decline of a formerly rich word, "set."


Simon Winchester, author, and New York Times Contributor: "A Verb for Our Frantic Times"


And we've called our friend, Simon Winchester, to talk about, well, words, which is something we often talk with him about. But before we move on to that, Simon Winchester's father just died, and Simon has one more Memorial Day memory for us. And he joins us now on the line from Massachusetts. Simon, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. SIMON WINCHESTER (Author): Well, thank you, Neal, very much. And I just thought, listening to all those wonderful and very moving calls just now, that I'd add my two cents worth or tuppence worth. My father, who indeed died last Monday, he was a tank commander in the British Army and he was captured on the 9th of June, 1944, just three days after D-Day and was taken off to a prisoner of war camp and was - when he was released, he was liberated ultimately by Americans.

And he, for the rest of his life, had an enormous affection for Americans and would take me at least once a year to the huge and wonderfully kept American cemetery just outside the city of Cambridge in England. And he said these were the people that brought me freedom and Europe freedom. And he felt that Memorial Day in America, for him, despite being an English soldier, was important too. I just thought that you might find that interesting.

CONAN: And we're sorry for your loss, Simon.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And it's good of you to be with us on a day - I know you're getting ready to fly to the funeral...


CONAN: ...but we appreciate you taking the time. Anyway, let me read the introduction so carefully prepared beforehand.

As lexicographers prepare the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, they've debated which of all the verbs in the English language enjoys the most meanings, which of the three quarters of a million or so words that make up our language is the most complex.

In yesterday's New York Times, author Simon Winchester reports we have a winner, the seemingly humble three-letter word, run. Definitions begin with, to go with quick steps on alternate feet, and go on and on for 75 columns of type and 645 meanings for the verb form alone.

So which of the many, many meanings of to run strikes you as the most interesting or curious? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION, and there you'll find a link to Simon Winchester's piece, "A Verb for Our Frantic Times."

And the author, as we mentioned, is with us from his home in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. His many books include "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." And, Simon, run is the new champion word, is it not?

Mr. WINCHESTER: When they prepared the first edition of the OED, which took them 70 years to do, so they began this in 1857 and finished - the first edition was published in 1928 - the longest word then or the one with the most definitions was another three-letter word. It was the word set. And that, if you go to the printed edition of the dictionary, you can see it occupies 32 full pages, 75 columns with about 200 meanings. I mean, everything, you know, you set something on the table, you play a set of tennis, the sun sets. It just goes on and on and on.

Well, during the 20th century, that word was displaced by another rather similar word, which was the word put. You put things on the table. You put things on a piece of paper. You put people down and so on. It became a much more complex word.

But when the OED got around to working on the letter R, which they began working on about two years ago, and got towards the end of R and started looking at words beginning with R-U, it became rapidly apparent that run completely outran, if that doesn't sound a terrible pun, both put and set. And when it was finished, about three weeks ago - I think, Peter Gilliver, who is this extraordinarily clever lexicographer who's putting it together, he counted out just for the verb alone 645 different meanings. So it's the absolute champion. So the order is run, put, set.

And after that, a four letter word, take, which we, I guess, we won't discuss today. But those first nine letters occupy, well, in the verb form alone, well over 1,000 meanings - 1,200 meanings, I think.

CONAN: In your piece, you ask, some of the senses of the derivations, try - this lexicographer, Peter Gilliver - why does a dressmaker run up a frock? Why run through a varlet with a sword? How come you run a fence around a field? Why, indeed, run this essay? Mr. Gilliver finally calculated there are, for the verb form alone, no fewer than 645 meanings. Why do you think run has overtaken put and set?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, I think it has to do with - this was my take on it, and Peter over in Oxford seemed to agree - it is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative, whereas run, not least all the meanings that have come from the Industrial Revolution - machines run, clocks run, computers run - there are all of those which began in the middle of the 19th century, I suppose.

But a lot of very old words (unintelligible) senses of run have now been sort of reinvented and put back into the language. Take one thing that you would think it sounds mechanical but it's not at all. In 1955, if you remember the film "12 Angry Men"...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WINCHESTER: ...you have that advertising chap who's sitting in the jury room who says, well, I got a good idea. We say we run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.

Well, you would think because there's a little wheel on top of the flagpole that that's actually a mechanical sense, but it's not when you think about it. To run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it means to use the word run as to try something out, which is a very different meaning than to make it go over a wheel on the top of a flagpole. So hundreds of new subtleties, sort of old meanings of the word have exploded since about 1850, and I think that's the reason, because they haven't exploded the set or put.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Winchester. We'd like to hear which of the many, many, many meanings of run you find most interesting or curious. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Jim, and Jim is with us from Meridian in Idaho.

JIM (Caller): Hi there, Neal. Thank you for this show today.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: My favorite meaning of run is in operate, as in my pacemaker runs all the time, and I'm very thankful for it.

CONAN: And it runs on electricity as well.

JIM: Yes, it does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: And thank goodness for that.

CONAN: And thank goodness for both of those things. Jim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JIM: You bet. Goodbye.

CONAN: That sense of operate - I think you were talking about the mechanical part.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes, indeed. And that all derives really from a very, very old form of the word, which came about in clocks, because the word run as something that goes around an axle or a spindle is almost as old as the first appearance of a gear wheel in a clock, which is quite a long time ago because they were in churches in the 11th and 12th centuries. So if it - something rotates around a spindle, there's an old English form to run, spelled R-U-N-N-E, of course. But that was at the time when we spelt dog D-O-G-G-E. We tend to and egg E-G-G-E. Things tend to have become simplified over the years, to the delight, I daresay, of Scrabble players.

(Soundbite of laughter)


CONAN: Does that suggest that the battlefield at Runnymede was something to do with this word at some point?

Mr. WINCHESTER: That's a very good question. You should ring up Peter Gilliver in Oxford and ask him. Run-ee-meed(ph). I wonder. I would think in that case it's probably - a mede is a field, I think, and it conceivably has something to do with the amount of mud that was sort of running...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINCHESTER: ...because, if I remember rightly, it was in the valley of the River Thames. It was probably a very muddy field and therefore runny, like a runny egg.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Jack in Muncie, Indiana: I'm reminded of The Beatles' song "Lady Madonna" that explores the uses of the word. See how they run.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Indeed. Well, I've just been - outside is a chicken, which I'm - because I'm leaving for London tonight, I'm desperately running after it and shall be when this show is over, try and pin it back into its cage. So I know all about that kind of running too.

CONAN: Let's go next to Doug, and Doug is with us from Fresno.

DOUG (Caller): Yes. My - the most interesting is that what you were just talking about, about the clock running, because when I was learning Spanish, my Spanish teacher told me that in Spanish you would not say the clock runs. You would say it walks, using obviously the Spanish word, meaning walk. But she was saying it was a cultural thing which English speakers tend to view time moving quickly and Spanish speakers, she said, viewed it moving more slowly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINCHESTER: The land of the siesta. You can see that, can't you?

DOUG: Yeah. So it's interesting that we use the word run for things that move and the movement of time in English, but other cultures wouldn't do that.

CONAN: Well - go ahead.

Mr. WINCHESTER: I was just going to say what about running a temperature? I wonder where that comes - the boy is running a fever. There's nothing mechanical about that. It's weird to try and work out where that comes from. Peter explains it in the piece, but it is very -it's very complex. As I say, it is a very, very complex and subtle word.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the observation.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: And Simon, indeed you draw some differences between English usage, English-English usage, and American English usage.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes. I mean slightly peripheral. I talk about in politics how American candidates, as we know all too well at the moment...


Mr. WINCHESTER: ...run for office, whereas we, in our rather more sedate way, we stand for office. And I was saying that - stand and set are different words. But they are similar in their difference from run because you can see it's the same difference between static, something like set and stand on the one hand, and things that are mobile like run. So I was trying to be slightly tongue in cheek and said that set is a sort of clubbable, sedentary and rather contented word, whereas run is sweaty, muscular, fitness-obsessed and six-pack muscled kind of word. And it's hardly surprising that it has pushed set and put into a corner.

CONAN: We're talking with Simon Winchester in Massachusetts. He is the author most recently of "The Alice Behind Wonderland."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Simon, it's important for a lexicographer who's drawing up the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to care about this. Why should the rest of us?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, that's a very good question. But indeed, when I put this to The New York Times so they might run the piece, they said we'd love to because there are these people all over America who are absolutely obsessed with the minutia of our language. And indeed, when I wrote the book that you referred to at the beginning of the program, "The Professor and the Madman," I have never known a book that was more of a lightning rod for pedantic people...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINCHESTER: ...I would get some extraordinary message from people that suggested that the shade of meaning that I had asserted one word had was wrong and that I should use another. People are passionately interested in our language, the English language - whether Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Germans are as fascinated with their own languages, I don't know. But English, because it is such a mongrel language, comes from all over the world, it just doesn't have any - the kind of purity that French and Italian tries to have.

I think it's the product of a very sort of argumentative society. People love their words, love them properly used, and hate - and indeed write to me, and people like me, in droves - if they think I've used the word improperly. So The New York Times likes that sort of thing.

CONAN: Let's go next to Joyce, Joyce with us from Groton - excuse me -in Connecticut.

JOYCE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOYCE: Yeah. I got a kick out of an Andy Griffith episode, where he was dating the teacher, Helen. And it was early in their relationship and she was also dating another man. Andy found out about it, and he was quite jealous. And he finally said to her one day, are you gonna run with him or are you gonna run with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So run is - in - as in hang out with.

JOYCE: Yeah, yeah. I just always got a kick out of that. That was so funny.

Mr. WINCHESTER: But then in English - of course, I would say in English-English as opposed to American English - we would say, are you gonna set your cap at him? And so we use set in a dating sense, whereas Andy Griffith would use run in the dating sense. So there's an example of the difference between our two tongues.

JOYCE: It was kind of - in my mind, I pictured like running with the dogs. You know, dogs run with each other.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Running with the hare and running with the hounds.


JOYCE: Running with a group. Yeah.


CONAN: Thanks very much, Joyce.

JOYCE: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email. This from Nicole in Boise: I find it curious that our noses run. I remember as a kid, people saying, go catch it.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes. In Boise, I guess, at this time of year, still they run. It must be - it's probably still quite chilly over there. But yes, indeed, they do. Well, we - you talked about the early ones and then cars run on tracks or cars run on petrol or gas, the train runs on tracks, an iPad runs apps. All of these are subtly different forms of run.

You must stop when you boil milk or add rennet to it. You must stop it running, becoming solid, which is the opposite from heating metal you -it makes - it becomes molten and it runs. So there are two antithetical meanings of the word run.

CONAN: In that context, this email from Karen in Evansville: I'm a quilter, and run is a very scary word that means my careful color composition could be ruined by a dye that is not set.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Very good. And a woman, of course, is careful not to put a run in her stocking. But in England, we still call it a ladder.

CONAN: This from Jennifer in Novelty, Ohio: I'm interested in the use of run to criticize people along with cut them down, tear them down, we can also run them down.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, and now there's an interesting - to run someone down is to chase them down, to find them. The FBI runs down a fugitive, or they run a gun in their car. They knock them down. So here are two identical phrases, but completely different meanings.

CONAN: Well, you can also run them down verbally. It's a vernacular, but...

Mr. WINCHESTER: Indeed, you can. Yes.

CONAN: Here's a question, though, from Mike: Where does the word play fall on the list? Another very versatile word.

Mr. WINCHESTER: I don't have the lead table other than for those first four, with take being the next one after these first three. But I could find it out and I'd be happy to send, Neal, an email telling you where it is on the list. I would say it's pretty high up, and they have, indeed, done P, so they did it about four years ago. So I could send a quick email to the people in Oxford and find out for you. I'd like to know as well.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one caller quickly in. Let's go to Ken, Ken with us from Cleveland.

KEN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I like run when you say, run a game, because it's - completely changes - transforms the meaning of the word game. As opposed to play a game with someone, you run a game on someone.

CONAN: I see. Yeah. Very interesting use of the verb. Thank you, Ken.

KEN: Sure.

Mr. WINCHESTER: I wonder, is that peculiarly American? I think if we went to that sense, which is I think about since '86, it would say brackets, American.

CONAN: American. All right, here's one appropriate for me. This is an email from Jessica in Portland: To run one's mouth - as she points out an abstraction of an abstraction - so - but anyway, Simon Winchester, again, our condolences on the loss of your father and thanks for taking out the time before you leave from London tonight.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well, it's nice to have me. Thanks. Lovely to talk to you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, Ellis Cose joins us to talk about his book "The End of Anger" and (unintelligible) the post-racist era. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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