By SIMON WINCHESTER
Published: May 28, 2011
HER birthday: must set plans in motion. Run a bath, put on cologne, set the table. High anxiety. Run down list: set watch again, put water in glasses, set flowers. Run to the window — phew! Watch her put a finger to the doorbell. Such joy! What timing! And just as the sun sets, too!
Thus does an evening beckon, full of pleasantry and promise. But as described here it notes events in a manner of considerable interest for the lexicographer. For scattered within the vocabulary of this 54-word drama are 11 uses of the three most complex verbs in the English language: “set,” “put” and “run.”
Each of the trio is possessed of so many meanings, senses and shadings of interpretation as to have occupied for months, even years, the exceptionally agile minds working on the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (expected in 2037). Recently an amiable contest has been fought to determine which verb has the most meanings of all. Which is the most lustrously complex word among the three quarters of a million or so words and senses that make up this vast mongrel tongue we know as the English language?
Well, according to the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, we now have a winner — and a winner that may well say something about the current state of English-speaking humankind. 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.’ ”
But why? The decline of “set” is the more readily explicable. Basically “I think ‘put’ killed ‘set,’ ” another lexicographer mused to Mr. Gilliver in an only-in-Oxford pub chat recently, noting that you now put a vase on the mantel, rather than set it there, and put words on paper, not set them.
Explaining why “run” has so greatly expanded its semantic territory is more difficult. The word has exploded with the increase in the number of machines and computers: a train runs on tracks, a car runs on gas, an iPad runs apps. But simultaneously, there have also been countless revivals of antique non-mechanical senses: you now run out on someone, you run something past someone. Old “runs” are, in other words, generating new meanings, a demonstration of the living nature of the language.
Between “set” and “run” (and their cousins) there are trans-Atlantic cultural differences, as you would expect. In the United States, for example, a political candidate will run for office, while in England he is content still to merely stand. And though “stand” and “set” are only marginally similar in meaning, their joint difference from “run” is suggestive of another, deeper reason behind the acceleration of “run” and the enervating stodginess of “set.” It reminds us of the difference between static and mobile, between energy and solidity — why dear old clubbable, sedentary and generally contented “set” has at long last been outstripped by sweaty, muscular, fitness-obsessed and six-pack-muscled “run.”
For while “set” stood for stability and sturdy conservatism, so the newfangled, richest-of-all-today’s-words “run” is all about ambition and optimism and the possibilities of the future. “Set” is England, old and fusty. “Run” is America, new and cool. “Set” is yesterday, “run” is tomorrow. In short: to set is human, but to run — divine.