Some of the smallest words in English shoulder the heaviest burden of meaning. The little word run, for example, occupies 15 pages in The Oxford English Dictionary — a little word, but hardly simple, whether a run in your stocking or a run-up in your stock.
Run has many meanings, but a basic one, both literally and figuratively, is motion, flowing or tending toward. The river ran over its banks. Her eyes ran over the page. His interest runs to medicine. A running stitch, a runny nose.
We hear a lot of “run” expressions in politics. Candidates are running. They may be giving opponents a good run for their money. They’re in or out of the running. They select running mates. It might be a runaway election, or end in a runoff. And someone will be a runner-up.
Not surprisingly, such references come from the racing world. A “good run for your money” applies to a horse on which one has bet and which runs well, though without winning. “Running mate” was first used in the 1860s to refer to a horse that set the pace for another horse from the same stable. By 1890, “running mate” also had become a political term.
“Run” phrases are so common that you can produce one by adding almost any preposition to the verb run. We run into or run across someone or something when we see someone or something by chance. We tell people to run along when we want them to scat. Run-in can refer to a quarrel or to printed matter inserted into a text. Poor writers create run-on sentences, and poor speakers run on and on.
A poorly maintained house is a run-down house, and a poorly maintained car may run down. When we want a summary or outline, we ask for a rundown, and if we don’t get it, we say we got the runaround.
We run out of dough when we run through our inheritance and start running up debt. Our cup isn’t running over.
We’re on the run when hurrying or running away.
When we run off, it means something entirely different from the runoff after an election, or from the runoff after a storm. And if we run off with something or someone, we may be, as with errant lovers, running around. Maybe we’ve run out on someone. Maybe we’re runaways who are running for it, and maybe someone will run after us, maybe run us to ground, or run us down, or even run over us. Serves us right.
We run a subject into the ground when we harp tiresomely on that subject, but we run something to ground when we find it. Run to ground or run to earth are fox-hunting metaphors that mean the prey has been chased to its burrow or hiding-place and cannot escape.
To keep the ball in the game’s closing minutes, the players run out the clock. Airplanes use runways. So do fashion models.
Running lights are required by ships or aircraft traveling at night. A running knot is a slipknot. A running board is the footboard or step below a vehicle door.
If something is average or ordinary, it is run-of-the-mill. That manufacturing jargon refers to the material produced in the mill before its quality has been inspected and approved.
Run the gantlet and run the gamut are common expressions. “Run the gantlet” was originally a military punishment in which the victim was forced to run between two rows of people who beat him as he passed. The expression’s figurative meaning is to be attacked or exposed to danger from all sides. (This expression is sometimes rendered “run the gauntlet,” but a gauntlet is a glove — you “throw down the gauntlet” when challenging someone.)
“Run the gamut,” which means a range or extent, derives from a musical scale or series of notes.
And there’s always the long run and the short run. And the run of good luck or bad luck.
But that will do. Don’t want to run it into the ground.
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing, available at www.marionstreetpress.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.