number of years ago, I needed to select a clickable word to appear on a computer screen, and "run" seemed to fit the requirement. I looked up the word "run" in my favorite dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) and discovered that its definitions took up three-quarters of page. I tentatively concluded that "run" must be the English word with the most definitions. The language, I thought to myself, would surely be enriched by disaggregating such an overburdened word. At the time, I was too busy to indulge my inventive impulse to do so. I went ahead and used "run," since the word "execute" or just about any other synonym would not fit in the limited space on the screen.
A decade later, I referenced this minor observation in "holomorph," a short essay in 101 Words I Don't Use, and after the publication of the Internet version, I received e-mail messages from linguists and librarians suggesting, not always in a kindly way, that I was mistaken. Said one, "The word 'run' is not the word with the greatest number of senses; that distinction belongs to the word 'set'!"
That set off a run of e-mail exchanges, beginning with my protest that definitions of the word "set" occupy only 83/8 inches of column space in my dictionary, while the definitions of the word "run" occupy a total of 137/8 inches of column space in the same volume -- 66% more. The previous sentence deserved an exclamation point, I suppose, but I restrained myself in my defensive replies.
"Let me just ask," asked one scholar, "are you saying 'run' has more meanings than 'set' in the American Heritage Dictionary or that it takes up more space?"
tunned by the question, I nevertheless replied with only a tincture of sarcasm, "Both, of course, which applies a tacit assumption: that it takes some nominal space in a given dictionary to describe a typical meaning, and so the total space in that same dictionary would grow in proportion to the number of meanings attributable to each of its entries. That proposition seems abundantly reasonable if not obvious."
The dialogues continued. Feeling myself surrounded by language experts and after being reproached by one for "mixing up two separate issues: the number of meanings of a word and the amount of space a dictionary devotes to it," I suggested to my tormentors that (ahem) a curious anomaly prevails in the cusp of these purportedly orthogonal issues -- a discrepancy that deserves an explanation. "Why," I asked with a cybersigh, "does any dictionary devote substantially more space to describe fewer meanings for one word and less space to describe more meanings for another word?" No reply was ever received.
There is no such anomaly -- at least in the case at hand, for I count a total of 121 meanings for "run" and only 63 meanings for "set." But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.
|run VERB : Inflected forms:
ran, run, run·ning, runs
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English ernen, runnen, from Old English rinnan, eornan, earnan, and from Old Norse rinna. [2,626 words]
|set VERB : Inflected forms:
set, set·ting, sets
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English setten, from Old English settan. See sed-. [1,705 words]
|INTRANSITIVE VERB :
1. a. To move swiftly on foot so that both feet leave the ground during each stride. b. To move at a fast gallop. Used of a horse. 2. To retreat rapidly; flee: “seized the money and ran.” 3. a. To move without hindrance or restraint: “dogs that always ran loose.” b. To go or move about from place to place; roam: “I am always running about, looking for my glasses.” 4. To migrate, especially to move in a shoal in order to spawn. Used of fish. 5. a. To move or go quickly; hurry: “run for the police; ran for help.” b. To go when in trouble or distress: “He is always running to his lawyer.” c. To make a short, quick trip or visit: “ran next door to borrow a cup of sugar; ran down to the store.” 6. a. To take part in a race or contest: “ran in the marathon; athletes who run for the gold medal.” b. To compete in a race for elected office: “ran for mayor.” c. To finish a race or contest in a specified position: “ran second.” 7. To move freely, on or as if on wheels: “The car ran downhill. The drawer runs on small bearings.” 8. To be in operation: “The engine is running.” 9. To go back and forth especially on a regular basis; ply: “The ferry runs every hour.” 10. Nautical To sail or steer before the wind or on an indicated course: “run before a storm.” 11. a. To flow, especially in a steady stream: “Fresh water runs from the spring. Turn on the faucet and let the water run.” b. To emit pus, mucus, or serous fluid: “Pollen makes my nose run.” c. To be wet or covered with a liquid: “The street ran with blood. The mourners' eyes ran with tears.” 12. To melt and flow: “A hot flame will make the solder run.” 13. To spread or dissolve, as dyes in fabric: “Colorfast garments are not supposed to run.” 14. To extend, stretch, or reach in a certain direction or to a particular point: “This road runs to the next town.” 15. To extend, spread, or climb as a result of growing: “Ivy ran up the wall.” 16. To spread rapidly: “disease that ran rampant.” 17. a. To be valid in a given area: “The speed limit runs only to the town line.” b. To be present as a valid accompaniment: “Fishing rights run with ownership of the land.” 18. To unravel along a line: “Her stocking ran.” 19. To continue in effect or operation: “a lease with one year to run.” 20. To pass: “Days ran into weeks.” 21. To tend to persist or recur: “Stinginess seems to run in that family.” 22. a. To accumulate or accrue: “The interest runs from the first of the month.” b. To become payable. 23. To take a particular form, order, or expression: “My reasoning runs thus. The report runs as follows.” 24. To tend or incline: “Their taste in art runs to the bizarre.” 25. To occupy or exist in a certain range: “The sizes run from small to large.” 26. To be presented or performed for a continuous period of time: “The play ran for six months.” 27. To pass into a specified condition: “We ran into debt.” 28. Informal To leave; depart: “Sorry, I have to run.”
|INTRANSITIVE VERB : 1. To disappear below the horizon:
“The sun set at seven that evening.” 2. To diminish or decline; wane. 3.
To sit on eggs. Used of fowl. 4. a. To become fixed; harden. See coagulate.
b. To become permanent. Used of dye. 5. To become whole; knit. Used of
a broken bone. 6. Botany To mature or develop, as after pollination. 7.
Nonstandard To sit: “If Emmett drives, I could set up front” (Bobbie Ann
Mason) 8. To position oneself preparatory to an action, such as running
a race. USAGE NOTES: Originally set meant “to cause (something)
to sit,” so that it is now in most cases a transitive verb: “She sets the
book on the table. He sets the table.” Sit is generally an intransitive
verb: “He sits at the table.” There are some exceptions: “The sun sets
(not sits). A hen sets (or sits) on her eggs.”
|TRANSITIVE VERB : 1. a. To travel over on foot at a pace faster than a walk: “ran the entire distance.” b. To cause (an animal) to move quickly or rapidly: “We run our hunting dogs every morning.” 2. To allow to move without restraint. 3. To do or accomplish by or as if by running: “run errands.” 4. To hunt or pursue; chase: “dogs running deer.” 5. To bring to a given condition by or as if by running: “The toddlers ran me ragged.” 6. To cause to move quickly: “She ran her fingers along the keyboard.” 7. a. To cause to compete in or as if in a race: “He ran two horses in the Kentucky Derby.” b. To present or nominate for elective office: “The party ran her for senator.” 8. To cause to move or progress freely. 9. To cause to function; operate: “run a machine.” 10. To convey or transport: “Run me into town. Run the garbage over to the dump.” 11. Football To attempt to advance (the ball) by carrying it. 12. To submit for consideration or review: “I'll run the idea by you before I write the proposal.” 13. Nautical To cause to move on a course: “We ran our boat into a cove.” 14. a. To smuggle: “run guns.” b. To evade and pass through: “run a roadblock.” 15. To pass over or through: “run the rapids.” 16. To cause to flow: “run water into a tub.” 17. To stream with: “The fountains ran champagne.” 18. Metallurgy a. To melt, fuse, or smelt (metal). b. To mold or cast (molten metal): “run gold into ingots.” 19. To cause to extend or pass: “run a rope between the poles.” 20. To mark or trace on a surface: “run a pencil line between two points.” 21. To sew with a continuous line of stitches: “run a seam.” 22. To cause to unravel along a line: “She ran her stocking on a splinter.” 23. a. To cause to crash or collide: “ran the car into a fence.” b. To cause to penetrate: “I ran a pin into my thumb.” 24. To continue to present or perform: “ran the film for a month.” 25. To publish in a periodical: “run an advertisement.” 26. To subject oneself or be subjected to: “run a risk.” 27. To have as an ongoing financial obligation: “run a deficit; run a tab.” 28. Games a. To score (balls or points) consecutively in billiards: “run 15 balls.” b. To clear (the table) in pool by consecutive scores. 29. To conduct or perform: “run an experiment.” 30. Computer Science To process or execute (a program or instruction). 31. To control, manage, or direct: “ran the campaign by himself; a bureau that runs espionage operations.”||TRANSITIVE VERB : 1. To put in a specified position; place: “set a book on a table.” 2. To put into a specified state: “set the prisoner at liberty.” 3. a. To put into a stable position: “set the fence post into a bed of concrete.” b. To fix firmly or in an immobile manner: “He set his jaw and concentrated on flying the plane through the storm.” 4. To restore to a proper and normal state when dislocated or broken: “set a broken arm.” 5. a. To adjust for proper functioning. b. To adjust (a saw) by deflecting the teeth. c. Nautical To spread open to the wind: “set the sails.” 6. To adjust according to a standard. 7. To adjust (an instrument or device) to a specific point or calibration: “set an alarm clock.” 8. To arrange properly for use: “set a place for a dinner guest; set a table.” 9. To apply equipment, such as curlers and clips, to (hair) in order to style. 10. Printing a. To arrange (type) into words and sentences preparatory to printing; compose. b. To transpose into type. 11. Music a. To compose (music) to fit a given text. b. To write (words) to fit a given melodic line. 12. To arrange scenery on (a theater stage). 13. To prescribe the unfolding of (a drama or narrative, for instance) in a specific place: “a play that is set in Venice.” 14. To prescribe or establish: “set a precedent.” 15. To prescribe as a time for: “set June 6 as the day of the invasion.” 16. To detail or assign (someone) to a particular duty, service, or station: “set the child to cleaning the closets; set guards around the perimeter.” 17. To incite to hostile action: “a war that set families against one another.” 18. a. To establish as the highest level of performance: “set a world aviation record.” b. To establish as a model: “A parent must set a good example for the children.” 19. a. To put in a mounting; mount: “set an emerald in a pendant.” b. To apply jewels to; stud: “a tiara that was set with diamonds.” 20. To cause to sit. 21. a. To put (a hen) on eggs for the purpose of hatching them. b. To put (eggs) beneath a hen or in an incubator. 22. Sports To position (oneself) in such a way as to be ready to start running a race. 23. Sports To pass (a volleyball), usually with the fingertips, in an arc close to the net so that a teammate can drive it over the net. 24. a. To value or regard something at the rate of: “She sets a great deal by good nutrition.” b. To fix at a given amount: “The judge set bail for the defendant at $50,000.” c. To make as an estimate of worth: “We set a high value on human life.” 25. To point to the location of (game) by holding a fixed attitude. Used of a hunting dog. 26. Botany To produce, as after pollination: “set seed.” 27. a. To prepare (a trap) for catching prey. b. To fix (a hook) firmly into a fish's jaw.|
|NOUN : 1. a. A pace faster than a walk. b. A fast gallop. Used of a horse. 2. An act of running. 3. a. A distance covered by or as if by running. b. The time taken to cover such a distance: “It is a two minutes' run from the subway.” 4. A quick trip or visit: “a run into town.” 5. a. Sports A running race: “the winner of the mile run.” b. A campaign for public office: “She managed his successful senatorial run.” 6. Abbr. R Baseball A point scored by advancing around the bases and reaching home plate safely. 7. Football A player's attempt to carry the ball past or through the opposing team, usually for a specified distance: “a 30-yard run.” 8. a. The migration of fish, especially in order to spawn. b. A group or school of fish ascending a river in order to spawn. 9. Unrestricted freedom or use: “I had the run of the library.” 10. A stretch or period of riding, as in a race or to the hounds. 11. a. A track or slope along or down which something can travel: “a logging run.” b. Sports A particular type of passage down a hill or across country experienced by an athlete, especially a skier or bobsledder: “had two very good runs before the end of the day.” 12. Sports The distance a golf ball rolls after hitting the ground. 13. a. A scheduled or regular route. b. The territory of a news reporter. 14. a. A continuous period of operation, especially of a machine or factory. b. The production achieved during such a period: “a press run of 15,000 copies.” 15. a. A movement or flow. b. The duration of such a flow. c. The amount of such a flow. 16. A pipe or channel through which something flows. 17. Eastern Lower Northern U.S. See creek. 18. A fall or slide, as of sand or mud. 19. Continuous length or extent: “a five-foot run of tubing.” 20. Geology A vein or seam, as of ore or rock. 21. The direction, configuration, or lie: “the run of the grain in leather.” 22. a. A trail or way made or frequented by animals. b. An outdoor enclosure for domestic animals or poultry: “a dog run; a turkey run.” 23. a. A length of torn or unraveled stitches in a knitted fabric. b. A blemish caused by excessive paint flow. 24. a. An unbroken series or sequence: “a run of dry summers.” b. Games A continuous sequence of playing cards in one suit. c. An unbroken sequence or period of performances or presentations, as in the theater. d. A successful sequence of actions, such as well-played shots or victories in a sport. e. Music A rapid sequence of notes; a roulade. f. A series of unexpected and urgent demands, as by depositors or customers: “a run on a bank.” 25. A sustained state or condition: “a run of good luck.” 26. A trend or tendency: “the run of events.” 27. The average type, group, or category: “The broad run of voters want the candidate to win.” 28. Computer Science An execution of a specific program or instruction. 29. Nautical The immersed part of a ship's hull abaft of the middle body. 30. runs Slang Diarrhea. Often used with the.||NOUN : 1. a. The act or process of setting. b. The condition resulting from setting. 2. The manner in which something is positioned: “the set of her cap.” 3. A permanent firming or hardening of a substance, as by cooling. 4. The deflection of the teeth of a saw. 5. a. The carriage or bearing of a part of the body. b. A particular psychological state, usually that of anticipation or preparedness: “The mental set of an audience is crucial to his performance” (Psychology Today) 6. A descent below the horizon. 7. The direction or course of wind or water. 8. A seedling, slip, or cutting that is ready for planting. 9. The act of arranging hair by waving and curling it.|
|ADJECTIVE : 1. Being in a melted or molten state: “run butter; run gold.” 2. Completely exhausted from running.||ADJECTIVE : 1. Fixed or established by agreement: “a set time for the launching.” 2. Established by convention: “followed set procedures for filing a grievance.” 3. Established deliberately; intentional: “Our set purpose is to win the conflict.” 4. Fixed and rigid: “His bearded face already has a set, hollow look” (Conor Cruise O'Brien) 5. Unwilling or very reluctant to change: “He is set in his ways.” 6. a. Intent and determined: “He is dead set against rushing abroad to build a plant” (Fortune) b. Ready: “We are set to leave early tomorrow morning.”|
|PHRASAL VERBS: run across To find by chance; come upon. run after 1. To pursue; chase. 2. To seek the company or attention of for purposes of courting: “He finally became tired of running after her.” run against 1. To encounter unexpectedly; run into. 2. To work against; oppose: “found public sentiment running against him.” run along To go away; leave. run away 1. To flee; escape. 2. To leave one's home, especially to elope. 3. To stampede. run down 1. To stop because of lack of force or power: “The alarm clock finally ran down.” 2. To make tired; cause to decline in vigor. 3. a. To collide with and knock down: “a pedestrian who was run down by a speeding motorist.” b. Nautical To collide with and cause to sink. 4. To chase and capture: “Detectives ran down the suspects.” 5. To trace the source of: “The police ran down all possible leads in the case.” 6. To disparage: “Don't run her down; she is very talented.” 7. To go over; review: “run down a list once more.” 8. Baseball To put a runner out after trapping him or her between two bases. run in 1. To insert or include as something extra: “ran in an illustration next to the first paragraph.” 2. Printing To make a solid body of text without a paragraph or other break. 3. Slang To take into legal custody. 4. To pay a casual visit: “We ran in for an hour.” run into 1. To meet or find by chance: “ran into an old friend.” 2. To encounter (something): “ran into trouble.” 3. To collide with. 4. To amount to: “His net worth runs into seven figures.” run off 1. To print, duplicate, or copy: “ran off 200 copies of the report.” 2. To run away; elope. 3. To flow off; drain away. 4. To decide (a contest or competition) by a runoff. 5. To force or drive off (trespassers, for example). run on 1. To keep going; continue. 2. To talk volubly, persistently, and usually inconsequentially: “He is always running on about his tax problems.” 3. To continue a text without a formal break. run out 1. To become used up; be exhausted: “Our supplies finally ran out.” 2. To put out by force; compel to leave: “We ran him out of town.” 3. To become void, especially through the passage of time or an omission: “an insurance policy that had run out.” run over 1. To collide with, knock down, and often pass over: “The car ran over a child.” 2. To read or review quickly: “run over a speech before giving it.” 3. To flow over. 4. To go beyond a limit: “The meeting ran over by 30 minutes.” run through 1. To pierce: “The soldier was run through by a bayonet.” 2. To use up quickly: “She ran through all her money.” 3. To rehearse quickly: “Let's run through the first act again.” 4. To go over the salient points or facts of: “The crew ran through the preflight procedures. We ran through the witness's testimony before presenting it in court.” run up To make or become greater or larger: “ran up huge bills; run up the price of the company's stock.” run with 1. To keep company: runs with a wild crowd. 2. To take as one's own; adopt: “[He] was determined to run with the idea and go public before it had been researched” (Betty Cuniberti) IDIOMS: a run for (one's) money Strong competition. in the long run In the final analysis or outcome. in the short run In the immediate future. on the run 1. a. In rapid retreat: “guerrillas on the run after an ambush.” b. In hiding: “fugitives on the run.” 2. Hurrying busily from place to place: “executives always on the run from New York to Los Angeles.” temperature (or fever) To have a higher than normal body temperature. run away with 1. a. To make off with hurriedly. b. To steal. 2. To be greater or bigger than others in (a performance, for example). foul (or afoul) of. 1. To run into; collide with: “a sloop that had run foul of the submerged reef.” 2. To come into conflict with: “a pickpocket who ran foul of the law.” run in place To go through the movements of running without leaving one's original position. run interference To deal with problems or difficult matters for someone else. run off at the mouth To talk excessively or indiscreetly. run off with To capture or carry off: “ran off with the state championship.” run (one's) eyes over To look at or read in a cursory manner. run out of To exhaust the supply of: “ran out of fuel.” gas (or steam) Slang 1. To exhaust one's energy or enthusiasm. 2. To falter or come to a stop because of a lack of capital, support, or enthusiasm. run out on To abandon: “has run out on the family.” run rings around To be markedly superior to. run scared Informal To become intimidated or frightened. run short To become scanty or insufficient in supply: “Fuel oil ran short during the winter.” run short of To use up so that a supply becomes insufficient or scanty: “ran short of paper clips.” earth (or ground) To pursue and successfully capture: “Dogs ran the fox to earth. The police ran the terrorists to ground.” See rei-.||PHRASAL VERBS: set about To begin or start: “set about solving the problem.” set apart 1. To reserve for a specific use. 2. To make noticeable: “character traits that set her apart.” set aside 1. To separate and reserve for a special purpose. 2. To discard or reject. 3. To declare invalid; annul or overrule: “The court has set aside the conviction.” set at To attack or assail: “The dogs set at the fox.” set back 1. To slow down the progress of; hinder. 2. Informal To cost: “That coat set me back $1,000.” set by To reserve for future use: “It is wise to set food and money by in case of a future emergency.” set down 1. To cause to sit; seat: “Set the baby down here.” 2. To put in writing; record: “We set down the facts.” 3. a. To regard; consider: “Just set him down as a sneak.” b. To assign to a cause; attribute: “Let's set the error down to inexperience.” 4. To land (an aircraft): “The pilot set the plane down hard.” 5. Baseball To put out (a batter); retire. Used of a pitcher. set forth 1. To present for consideration; propose: “set forth a sound plan.” 2. To express in words: “She has set forth her ideas.” set forward To begin a journey. set in 1. To insert: “set in the sleeve of a gown.” 2. To begin to happen or be apparent: “Evening was setting in as I took the road over Mountain Top” (Charles Siebert) 3. To move toward the shore. Used of wind or water. set off 1. a. To give rise to; cause to occur: “set off a chemical reaction.” b. To cause to explode: “set off a bomb.” c. To make suddenly or demonstrably angry: “The clerk's indifference finally set me off.” 2. To indicate as being different; distinguish: “features setting him off from the crowd.” 3. To direct attention to by contrast; accentuate: “set off a passage with italics.” 4. To counterbalance, counteract, or compensate for: “Our dismay at her leaving was set off by our knowing that she was happy.” 5. To start on a journey: “set off for Europe.” set out 1. To begin an earnest attempt; undertake: “He set out to understand why the plan had failed.” 2. To lay out systematically or graphically: “set out a terrace.” 3. To display for exhibition or sale. 4. To plant: “set out seedlings.” 5. To start a journey: “She set out at dawn for town.” set to 1. To begin working energetically; start in. 2. To begin fighting. set up 1. To place in an upright position. 2. a. To elevate; raise. b. To raise in authority or power; invest with power: “They set the general up as a dictator.” c. To put (oneself) forward as; claim to be: “He has set himself up as an authority on the English language.” d. To assemble and erect: “set up a new machine.” 3. To establish; found: “set up a charity.” 4. To cause: “They set up howls of protest over new taxes.” 5. To establish in business by providing capital, equipment, or other backing. 6. Informal a. To treat (someone) to drinks. b. To pay for (drinks). 7. Informal To stimulate or exhilarate: “a victory that really set the team up.” 8. To lay plans for: “set up a kidnapping.” 9. Informal To put (someone else) into a compromising situation by deceit or trickery: “Swindlers have set me up.” 10. Sports To make a pass to (a teammate), creating a scoring opportunity. set upon To attack violently: “Guards set dogs upon the escaping prisoners.”|
|REGIONAL NOTES: Terms for “a small, fast-flowing stream” vary throughout the eastern United States especially. Speakers in the eastern part of the Lower North (including Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania) use the word run. Speakers in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, the Dutch settlement areas of New York State, may call such a stream a kill. Brook has come to be used throughout the Northeast. Southerners refer to a branch, and throughout the northern United States the term is crick, a variant of creek.||IDIOMS: set fire to To cause to ignite and burn. set foot in To enter. set foot on To step on. set in motion To give impetus to: “The indictment set the judicial process in motion.” set (one's) heart on To be determined to do something. set (one's) sights on To have as a goal: “She set her sights on medical school.” set on fire 1. To cause to ignite and burn. 2. To cause to become excited: “The music set the audience on fire.” set sail Nautical To begin a voyage on water. set (someone) straight To correct (someone) by providing full and accurate information. set store by To regard as valuable or worthwhile. set the pace 1. To go at a speed that other competitors attempt to match or surpass. 2. To behave or perform in a way that others try to emulate. set the stage for To provide the underlying basis for: “saber rattling that set the stage for war.” set up housekeeping To establish a household. set up shop To establish one's business operations.|
will also see in the tabulation above that there are at least 50%
more "phrasal verbs" for "run" in the language, than for "set" -- apparently
to afford specificity in meaning. No surprise there. The more
meanings a word has, obviously, the more that word must be embedded in
a phrase to give it practical usage.
Burdened with enough meanings, then, a word can depreciate in value, its linguistic role reduced to that of a mere mannequin dressed up in modifiers, hence the presence of "run" in 101 Words I Don't Use.
To test this idea, you are invited to consider whether
improvements in expressiveness might be achieved by replacing rather than
embedding the word "run."