Where does the usage of "run" come from in expressions in which you are saying that something is finishing like: run short of or run low on something?

I checked the etymology online dictionary which says:

To run short "exhaust one's supply" is from 1752; to run out of in the same sense is from 1713.

but I don't understand why the verb "run" is used. What is the origin of this idiomatic usage?

  • I would guess it goes back to an hourglass. When time runs out the sand is running down.
    – Helmar
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 13:24
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    Hourglasses were very expensive, and only for rich people. It's a much more natural metaphor than that. Rivers run, and they run dry. Runners run themselves out of energy. Running takes place on a path, and paths have ends. Run can refer to the beginning, the middle, or the end of the path, and when it refers to the end, it runs out. Make the path a metaphor for the flow of goods, and the end of the flow is the end of the supply. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 14:12
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    Agreeing with John Lawler - "run" is a versatile word, after all; its entry is the OED's longest. Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 14:23
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    @Saturana - I'm talking about a metaphor. Water flow is the prototype, as well as body fluids, which are mostly water anyway. Everybody encounters water flow daily, and always has; we know what it means experientially, and we use it as a metaphor for other experiences like music and speeches and athletics and gods know what all. That's where all those other meanings of flow in the dictionary come from, and why they never quite nail down the sense you're looking for -- they're all metaphors, and make perfect sense in context. Only. Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 12:52
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    @JohnLawler - Most importantly, when the beer "runs out", that is a major crisis. When it "runs low", that is impending doom.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 22:21

4 Answers 4


Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry:

in the long run Over a lengthy period of time, in the end. [Example omitted.] This expression, which originated as at the long run in the early 1600s, presumably alludes to a runner who continues on his course to the end. Economist John Maynard Keynes used it in a much-quoted quip about economic planning: "In the long run we are all dead." The antonym, in the short run, meaning "over a short period of time," dates only from the 1800s. The novelist George Eliot used both in a letter (October 18, 1879): "Mrs. Healy's marriage is surely what you expected in the long or short run."

A Google Books Search largely supports Ammer's view that "at the long run" is the older phrase. The earliest match for "in the long run" that it finds is from The Safest-Way with the Dissenters: Being in Answer to a Late Book, Entituled, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (1703):

For no sooner was the Toleration Bill passed, and their Preachers set up for lawful Ministers in the Pulpits, but their Laymen set up for Courtiers, and advanc'd themselves to Offices, leaping over the Fence of the Sacrament by the Dispensation and Approbation of their Preachers, which Action but a few Years before would have been Under the Censure of their Churches: Now this Dispensation of their Preachers has in the long run prov'd very Fatal to the Dissenting Interest ; for no sooner were they got into Offices, but they turn'd Knaves, Selling of Offices to any Persons who were the highest Bidders, and sending (for the sake of Lucre) the most deserving of their Party to beg their bread under a Government they had lost their All to Establish ; ...

But the same search finds three matches for "at the long run" from the 1670s. The first of these, Thomas Brooks, London's Lamentations: or, A serious Discourse concerning that late fiery Dispensation that turned our (once renowned) City into a ruinous Heap (1670) uses the expression three times:

So though sore afflictions, though fiery tryals seem to work quite cross and contrary to the Saints Prayers and desires, yet they shall be so ordered and tempered by a skilful and omnipotent hand, as that they shall all issue in the Saints good. At the long-run by all sorts of fiery tryals, the Saints shall have their sins more weakned, their Graces more improved, and their experiences more multiplied, their evidences for Heaven more cleared, their communion with God more raised, and their hearts and lives more amended.


But I hope Londons doom is not such [as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah] ; for God has given to thousands of her inhabitants a Spirit of Grace and Supplication : which is a clear evidence, that at the long run, they shall certainly carry the day with God.


Secondly, Did you improve your estates for the glory of God, and the good of others, or did you not? If not, why do you complain? If you did, the reward that shall attend you at the long run, may very well bear up your spirits under all your losses.

Similar use of "at the long run" appears in Matthew Hale, Contemplations Moral and Divine (1676) and in Richard Gilpin, Daemonologia Sacra: Or, A Treatise of Satan's Temptations (1677). Like Brooks, Gilpin uses the phrase three times in his treatise; Hale uses it four times in his.

None of the idiom dictionaries I consulted (aside from Ammer) hazards an opinion as to the origin of the phrase. But certainly the preachers who gravitated toward "at the long run" in the 1670s seem to have had in mind a meaning along the lines of "when events have run their course."


I am sticking to my hourglass. :)

run (v.)

the modern verb is a merger of two related Old English words, in both of which the first letters sometimes switched places. The first is intransitive rinnan, irnan "to run, flow, run together" (past tense ran, past participle runnen), cognate with Middle Dutch runnen, Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic rinnan, German rinnen "to flow, run."

The second is Old English transitive weak verb ærnan, earnan "ride, run to, reach, gain by running" (probably a metathesis of *rennan), from Proto-Germanic *rannjanan, causative of the root *ren- "to run." This is cognate with Old Saxon renian, Old High German rennen, German rennen, Gothic rannjan.


The German rinnen can very much be used to describe the process of sand trickling down from the top to the bottom. Der Sand rinnt herunter. (The sand "trickles" down.) Interestingly the passage of time is still associated with that word in German not on the equivalent to running. Die Zeit verrinnt. ((The) time runs out.)

In modern German there are still two words rinnen (wich means something like trickle) and rennen (which is run). Since the English run stems from the same origin as the former it stands to reason that this is the reason why the passage of time is still associated with this. Even though the connotations of the second part have otherwise dominated the word's perception.

Even older are water clocks which makes the association even clearer since both the Old English and the Dutch / German rinnen also mean to flow.

Finally the jump from time running out to running out of something else does not seem like such a big step afterwards.


Mostly, the word run is used to indicate something in motion; something that is moving at a fast rate towards the end — or competing maybe. For example: "to run a race" and "to run short of" as well.

Or it is used when something is caused to move. For example: "running fingers through the hair", "running a program" or maybe "running a vacuum cleaner".

It could be used to refer to something that is spreading around quickly. For example: "There's a strange story running around the neighborhood." And "The flu is running through my daughter's kindergarten".

It could be used to refer to the managing of a store, which is also indicative of flow/motion with respect to time.

It could be used to refer to something that extends in time or in space; something that lasts or continues.

Now, if we use run in a noun form, then also we use the word to refer to an act or instance of hurrying, migration or maybe a trip; something fluid, in sequence or continuous. For example: "The constant run of water from the faucet annoys me." And "The run of the show lasted two weeks."

Moreover, in cricket, a score is made by the run of the batsmen.

So, the word run is applicable in places where continuity, motion and all such things are being referred to. :)


Early usage was based on the concept that if you run an animal you will eventually exhaust it. "Many figurative uses are from horseracing or hunting" as mentioned here - (refer fourth paragraph, listed under the verb entry).

Another possible origin is that of steam engines. Referring to the fact that the trains are 'running' on the tracks, until they 'run out of' steam. So 'run' here is being used metaphorically in relation to the locomotive force, and to run out, is the exhaustion of that force. Although this is really an extension of the animal 'running out of' energy origin I suggested first, as opposed a completely different origin I would say.

"...that made it impossible for me to get in one word to her hundred. I stood it for a little while in hope she would run out of steam or material, but she gathered force as she went." - The Perry Daily Chief, January 1898.

Referenced here

Interestingly I've found the phrase being used as early as 1562 in an epigram of John Heywood which predates the steam engine, so I would say given this, the animal running out of energy is the most likliest origin which was developed into the idea of trains running out of steam quite some time later.

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