May 30, 2011

The most complex word in the English language

What is the word with the most meanings in the  English language? Surely it must be a verb, nouns tend to have not more than a handful of meanings, if you don't count metaphorical uses. Surely it must be a one-syllable verb, because these are the words that get used most often, taking on new meanings, combining easily with different noun and adjective phrases. Could it be a semantically bleached verb like get or put, verbs that need to be followed by something to take on a concrete sense of meaning?
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.”
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. 
Does this run counter to your expectations?

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