If asked to pick the most complex word in the English language, what comes to mind? Maybe something long and intricate like “antidisestablishmentarianism” or “honorificabilitudinitatibus.” Maybe it’s a medical word, or one with silent letters like “pneumonia.”
Chances are you wouldn’t automatically pick out a three-letter word that you use in everyday conversation. But that’s just it — the richest word in English is “run.”
Why does this one little word hold so much weight? According to Simon Winchester, who wrote The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary and is an expert on the subject, it’s because there are 645 meanings of its verb form alone.
The word that used to hold such an impressive standing was “set,” which took up 32 full pages of the original Oxford English Dictionary, proving that smaller certainly does not mean less intricate. So why did “run” overrun “set,” and the next champion, “put”?
“It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative, whereas run, not least all the meanings that have come from the Industrial Revolution — machines run, clocks run, computers run — there are all of those which began in the middle of the 19th century,” Winchester told NPR.
The next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with every definition of “run” included, is set to go to print in 2037. Until then, you can let all of the hundreds of definitions run through your head.
Bonus facts: 12 words reaching retirement age in 2020
These words first came on the scene in 1955 and will soon turn 65.
The first citation for database comes from a 1955 economics journal article. In 1962 it was written as two separate words in quotes in the following explanation: “A ‘data base’ is a collection of entries containing item information that can vary in its storage media and in the characteristics of its entries and items.” Now it’s so common a concept it needs no explanation or scare quotes.
Weirdo started as slang. The first citation is from an encyclopedia of jazz where it appeared as “Weird-o, a weird person.” It turned out to be very useful in the following decades.
The verb “to boggle” and the expression “it boggles the mind” were older, but the succinct adjective mind-boggling first made an appearance in Erich Fromm’s Sane Society: “Consumerism in the America of the 1950s constructed a culture of mind-boggling banality and stifling homogeneity.”
Another prominent intellectual of the period, Noam Chomsky, gives us the first citation for counter-intuitive, that which is contrary to intuition, or unexpected. It appeared in a 1955 work in theoretical linguistics, but took a while to reach the wider culture.
This cross-breed of a Labrador retriever and a poodle had been around for awhile as a “Labrador-poodle mix” before the cute blended name was coined in 1955. It didn’t catch on for a couple decades, but is firmly in the dog-loving culture now.
6. Artificial intelligence
In 1955 a group of scholars produced “a proposal for the Dartmouth summer research project on artificial intelligence.” The conference that took place at Dartmouth the next year is the beginning of the field of study concerned with the ability of computers to behave like intelligent beings.
This slang term for cool toughness shows up in a 1955 letter by James Blake, a jazz pianist and self-described “world’s most inept burglar” who published a book of his letters written from prison in 1971.
8. Inner child
The concept of the inner child, a person’s hidden, innocent, playful, authentic self developed in the 1950s and really flowered in the 1960s. The term and the idea are now fully entrenched in the culture.
The noun self-destruction is centuries old, but our first evidence of the verb is from a 1955 publication of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association describing “a ‘self-destruct’ circuit” that would “cause an anti-aircraft missile to destroy itself in mid-air so as to avoid danger to friendly ground forces.” In the late 60s, the TV show Mission: Impossible spread the idea of the self-destructing communication.
Before there was skydiving there was parachuting. After the end of World War II, returning soldiers developed the fun pastime of “sport parachuting” which eventually became “skydiving.”
These days it’s not unusual at all to talk about state-of-the-art skincare, or refrigerators, or chewing gum. It adds the sheen sophisticated, high-level technology to whatever the product. It first appeared in a 1955 issue of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society with reference to automatic flight systems.
Fashion trends come and go quickly, and a big one of the late fifties, the A-shaped dress contour introduced with the 1955 Christian Dior spring collection, has come and gone as a style, but the name for the flared silhouette is the term we still use.
By Pat Cortland