Nice work from Simon Winchester in the New York Times about the word run. The Oxford English Dictionary says that run is the word with the most number of distinct usages — six hundred forty five distinct potential articulations. Winchester connects the development of new meanings with the tempo of the industrial age. Despite the arty conclusion to the essay, the heart of it contains some good data.
For while in the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928, that richest-of-all-words was “set” 75 columns of type, some 200 senses, the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word “run.”
You might think this word simply means “to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or in the case of many animals all feet on the ground at the same time.” But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.
It took Peter Gilliver, the O.E.D. lexicographer working on the letter R, more than nine months harnessed to the duties of what Samuel Johnson once called “a harmless drudge” plus many more months of preparatory research to work out what he believes are all the meanings of “run.” And though some of the senses and their derivations try him — 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 has finally calculated that there are for the verb-form alone of “run” no fewer than 645 meanings. A record.
In terms of sheer size, the entry for “run” is half as big again as that for “put,” a word on which Mr. Gilliver also worked some years ago. But more significantly still, “run” is also far bigger than the old chestnut “set,” a word that, says Mr. Gilliver, simply “hasn’t undergone as much development in the 20th and 21st centuries as has ‘run.’ ”
I also liked the cool little graphic quiz for the article. Without the text, this is a wonderful exposition of the current state of our nation: boat run aground, robbed by capital, some left behind, patriotism, empty tanks, brain explosions, homeruns and James Joyce.