I'm running a fever/temperature.

I have a student who likes to ask where idioms come from. Since the meanings are not literal, it is challenging for her to remember them. It often helps her to attach a story or explanation to an idiom, even if it is only folk etymology.

I've not had any luck searching on EL&U or in any dictionary for the origins of the phrase. It's always present in dictionaries but for etymology just refers the reader to run, which never explains the specific meaning in running a fever/temperature.

If anyone knows where the phrase actually originates, it would be helpful, but even a non-referenceable* etymology would be useful.

*i.e. heard from some guy down the pub; learnt a long time ago but I forget where; made-up; etc.

  • You're asking for the bending of the site rules with your appeal for hearsay answers. From meta: 'Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions ... [require] that opinion be backed up with facts and references' – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 7:43
  • Well, the question itself is not subjective, at least in my opinion (which is both subjective and biased! Ho ho). Anyway, I would of course prefer to know the real source of the phrase. But the ultimate purpose to which the answer will be put does not demand accuracy, only plausibility, hence my allowance of even a non-referenceable theory. I certainly didn't mean it to come across as "anything goes". – David John Welsh Jun 11 '14 at 8:00

I'm not sure of the actual entymology of the phrase, but 'to run' means in this case 'to continue to have', so while the fever is being maintained it's 'running'.

  • I guess that makes sense. Can you think of another example of 'run' with the meaning 'to continue to have'? – David John Welsh Jun 11 '14 at 7:06
  • 1
    'The meter is running' (in a taxi). This is not to 'continue to have' per se, but more to continue in a particular state (which is probably more appropriate than using 'to continue to have' with respect to your original question). – BelgianExile Jun 11 '14 at 7:16
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    If we allow 'continue in a given state', which seems very reasonable, "I'm running late today" is another example, this time a link verb usage. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 7:35
  • I really like the idea of thinking of it as a linking verb. I think that might work for my student. – David John Welsh Jun 12 '14 at 3:51

I always considered this to be something of a misplaced ownership of the word running.

It is not the person who is running a fever but rather the person has a fever and it is the fever that is running, running it's course; eventually the fever will complete it's run and the person's temperature drops to normal again (or they are dead).

  • So are you saying a semantic shift has occurred? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 7:44
  • @EdwinAshworth Dunno really, it could mean running as in managing but I'm just saying that I always think of running a fever as the fever running it's course rather than the person with the fever having any input to 'the running' (managing). – Frank Jun 11 '14 at 7:51
  • 'Run / running' have many senses, not all of which imply an agent subject (Agent: deliberately performs the action). John ran quickly / John ran the bar //// Time ran slowly / The river ran swiftly / My blood ran cold / The car is running well / The fever ran its course. It's trying to sort out the evolutionary pathways that's tricky. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 8:32
  • @EdwinAshworth Assuming that running a fever is actually an idiom then I'm sure we'll all be put straight in good time, it's not like it's an old phrase where the origins may have been lost. – Frank Jun 11 '14 at 8:47
  • That's what idioms often are. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 8:52

Ngran shows that its usage started to become popular at the beginning of 1900.

I have found the following reference :to run a fever


'Run' has many meanings. In this phrase, 'run' means 'to continue to have', so 'run a fever' refers to a person maintaining a 'fever' (a high body temperature).

  • 1
    Is Ngran the older version? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 '14 at 8:33

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