Historically speaking, it makes sense to me someone would say run "the computer". Early computers (not a human computer) were mechanical machines with moving parts that could achieve a velocity deemed "running" from the perspective of a human being. I don't know for sure if that is the reason why, but that seems plausible.

But why run the "program", "code" or "software"?

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    This might not be answerable definitively, as jargon is rarely documented; and lacking documentation, "to run" meaning "to make a thing go" is so common in English that it would be unusual for the word use for code to not be "run". It might be akin to asking "Where does the phrase 'walk the dog' come from? Why 'walk'?" The answer may merely be "Because that's what the word means." Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:33
  • It's a difficult question, no doubt. I'm hoping someone would either have lived long enough to have a story to tell from the past that sheds light on why. Or someone would make an argument that I find convincing. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 14:11
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    Here are a couple of instances of run a program from 1924. The usage long predates computers. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 14:56
  • @FumbleFingers: "run" in conjunction with "program" is shedding a light that makes a lot of sense to me. It's like a director requesting that actors act out what is on the script/program/code. A programmer requests that the computer act out what is on the script/program/code. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 15:05
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    Whatever makes sense to you. It's pretty obvious from the answers here that different people have wildly differing rationalisations for why "run" is used in this sense. But as @Hugo points out, it's now the word with the most meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is just one of them, which relates more closely to some alternative meanings than it does to others. Note that the OED entry starts with "run: a verb of complicated history in Eng." You've picked a really awkward word if you're looking for simple explanations! Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 15:13

6 Answers 6


It seems to have been a natural extension of the usage of "run" which is used as a synonym for to operate or to cause to operate. An example being "The engine is running."

If I had to speculate, that particular meaning could have come from the speedy motion one can observe, for instance, seeing an engine operating. This is pure conjecture, however, since there are also other correct usages of the word run which are entirely procedural in nature, e.g. "To run a business."

  • Run the "computer" makes sense to me in that regards, it's using the "machine" metaphor. But why run "code"? It's just a pattern. Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 23:07
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    I'm not sure if this is the origin, but normally, code is considered "steps" to be executed. In debugger you can "step forward" one instruction ahead. If you let the computer execute the steps as fast as it only can, it's called "run".
    – SF.
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 23:20
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    In my mind, a machine is normally just running an "instruction loop" an engineer "programmed" using physics, the only difference is the level of abstraction. When a computer is "running" it's either processing instructions or waiting for instructions to process. When you give it new instructions, it "runs" those.
    – mootinator
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:01
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    @FumbleFingers Thanks. My point was that a computer isn't doing anything significantly different when it "runs a program" as opposed to when it is simply "running".
    – mootinator
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:19
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    "run" was also well established both as a verb in the sense of "run its course" and as a corresponding noun meaning "series of consequences" (e.g. "He had a run of bad luck"). So it may also be a natural extension of this specific meaning. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 10:09

Where does the phrase “run code” or “run software” come from? Why “run”?


As detailed in another question, run is now the word with the most meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. From the New York Times:

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.

As run is so versatile, it comes as no surprise that it was applied to computers and computer programs from the earliest days of computers.

An earlier related meaning in the OED is the verb to keep or operate machinery, for example from 1840:

The farmers would find it difficult to run a mill to make cloths, or to build and sail a ship to take his produce to market.

And the noun, the act of making machinery run from 1864:

The Blue Gravel claim (placer) at Smartsville, cleared up, after a run of two weeks of their mill, the sum of $44000.

The first electronic digital computers were developed between 1940 and 1945 and it's not surprising the earliest relevant OED entry for the noun run is from 1941.

IV. Senses relating to the operation or management of something.

IV 50 d. Computing. An instance of the execution of a program or other task by a computer.

1941 Jrnl. Amer. Statist. Assoc. 36 513 While a maximum of 54 runs through the tabulator is required, only one-ninth of the cards are used during each run.

The verb follows from this:

V. To (cause to) operate or function.

79. d. (a) trans. Computing. To perform (a computation) on a computer; to cause the instruction in (a program) to be carried out, to execute. Cf. run n.2 50d.

1946 Man. Operation Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (Harvard Computation Lab.) vi. 289 A clear copy of the coding must be provided before an attempt is made to run a sequence tape on the calculator.


Modern computer programs are software written with a programming language, and software can be run on a computer. A program is a special code that a computer process and can understand, and software is also known as a code. (Writing a program is also known as coding.) Early programs were "written" by punching holes in tape in a special sequence, or code, that the computer could process and execute, or run.

This meaning of code also comes from the early days of computing. The OED:

3. c. Cybernetics. Any system of symbols and rules for expressing information or instructions in a form usable by a computer or other machine for processing or transmitting information.

1946 Nature 26 Oct. 568/1 The brains of the machine lie in the control tape, which is code-punched in three sections.

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    I suspect this was only a record because Mr. Peter Gilliver was not working on the letter F...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 18:58
  • From the same NYT article: In terms of sheer size, the entry for “run” is half as big again as that for “put,” a word on which Mr. Gilliver also worked some years ago. But more significantly still, “run” is also far bigger than the old chestnut “set,” a word that, says Mr. Gilliver, simply “hasn’t undergone as much development in the 20th and 21st centuries as has ‘run.’ ”
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 19:08
  • Yes, but how does it compare to the universal adjective? youtube.com/watch?v=1NvDZpICdzo
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 19:14

The first general purpose computers were large machines. They did not execute the typical stored instruction programs that we have today. Each instruction had to be wired by hand by connecting terminals on plugboards with one or more patch cables. This sometimes took days to complete and verify. Once the program was "wired", the machine could be turned on and allowed to run.

run : 7 be in or cause to be in operation; function or cause to function

etymology: of machinery, from 1560s.

From The ENIAC Story:

Coders, programmers, and engineers made it run and produced useful results which otherwise would have been unattainable. The rapid progress of computer technology, spurred by the ENIAC itself ...

  • They might be smaller, but modern microprocessor-based systems are still "wired", "turned on", etc. Functionally, they pretty much do the same as ever - they execute (or run, if you like) code. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 1:21
  • The point is that they were machines and the typical terminology for machines was "to run". Nowadays, a computer is "running" pretty much all the time and while the computer is running, programs are loaded and executed, whereas back then the machines were "programmed" with the machine off and then set to run. Thus "running" a program.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 1:29
  • I disagree with the entire association of running code with running machinery in that mechanical sense. It's the sequence of instructions which are being run (stepped through), not the processor "running" (operational, turned on, doing work, etc.). Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 1:39
  • @FumbleFingers No, this is plausible. However, without a cite, it's as much speculation as the rest of the answers. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:00
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    @Seung Chan Lim: Back when? All I'm saying is running has a lot of associations beyond "machinery in an operational state". The concept of "running" code only relates to machinery in the sense that we use hardware to execute software. Without the tin, we can only "single-step" the code as human beings (which is a lot slower than running it! :) Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:52

It's a normal metaphor for computing. If you think about it, all computing terms are bound to be metaphors, since it's too new a phenomenon to have established terms.

And Running Fast is one of the most common. Running is something people and other animals do; it's an extension of the body, like almost all metaphors. And it's something that some are better at than others. Speed is part of that, but we also speak of Running Light or Running Well.

  • I understand that it's a metaphor, but I'm trying to find out why that metaphor. Running the "computer" makes sense to me as using the metaphor of a machine or an engine with moving parts that can achieve a certain velocity. I just don't understand why "code" (which is just a pattern) would be associated with "run" Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:39
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    @Seung Chan Lim: You're conflating different computer senses of "code" - what gets "run" is instruction codes (increment this value, get a data value from this address, etc.). You (or more accurately, the computer, on your behalf) run/operate/execute those instructions. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:04
  • @FumbleFingers: Oh, I see... What you mean by code is the instructions, what I mean by the code is the pattern stored in memory or disk, more akin to the holes in the punchcard. That's what I've always thought "code" in "running code" meant. But you're saying that's not the case. Is that an accurate understanding of what you mean? Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:23
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    @Seung Chan Lim: Code=pattern isn't a useful interpretation in this context. Think of it as code=symbol, where each "instruction" has a "symbolic representation". An individual instruction is normally executed, whereas a sequence (run) of instructions is normally run. But as John says, computing is too new for usage to be totally fixed - you can certainly execute a series of instructions, and many people would say you can run a single instruction. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:38
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    @Seung Chan Lim: More accurately, execute the instructions (using the machine), or cause the machine to be controlled (run) by the code/program/script. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 15:00

From New monthly magazine: Volume 21 (1827)

we will just run through it, and glance at its most successful points.

where I read "run" as equivalent to "step quickly through". That's what computers have always done - stepping ever more quickly through ever more complex instruction sequences. There's also of course the long-standing sense of running a business (executing the procedures that businesses concern themselves with).

Programmers working at the detailed level run code (simple sequences being tested), and geeks run software. Everyone else uses/starts a program - or more likely an app nowadays.

  • computers running through or stepping through code or programmers running punch cards through the computer make sense to me. So I guess then the word "through" somehow disappeared? Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:25
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    @Seung Chan Lim: Let me run this one by you again. I could run you off (or up) a whole slew of different metaphorical uses of the word "run" - certainly enough to give you a run for your money. Many if not most of the metaphorical ways we use "run" have little or no direct connection to physical movement. Even if you run your business into the ground, it won't actually go anywhere. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:28

One of the earliest predecessors of the programmable computer was a programmable weaving machine, the Jacquard loom. It used selected and changeable punch cards to program its output.

A next step, designed but not fully implemented, was also a mechanical programmable device, the Analytic Engine designed by Charles Babbage. It was designed to use punch cards that activated physical wheels.

The IBM punch card, which was the input media for both data and portions of the programs, is a direct decendant of these machines. You only have to watch a punch card sorter or input reader flipping through a stack of cards and digesting the data to appreciate the aptness of running code.

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    So "running" code as in running cards through the machine? As in the cards are physically traveling into the machine at high speed? Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 1:24
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    @SeungChanLim They did. The sorting machine was a pre-computer device to sort by a given variable. The cards ran on rollers over bins and lights shone through holes that tripped levers to drop them in bins. Sorted cards were then assembled into a stack that was, in effect, the program. When cards were fed into the computer, the cards were put in a bin fed, through on rollers again over lights to "read" the holes in the cards and spit out into another bin. The data collected from this run was then processed a bit less physically.
    – bib
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:44
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    The allusion to movement of card or paper tape is largely irrelevant. I started in programming using both those - I can assure you they only move when the program code is being loaded into the machine's memory. That happens before the code is "run". And the "running" might be delayed until you pressed a button - or typed "run", on later machines with actual keyboards. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:59
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    I do not disagree with the various other analyses as to run meaning operate or execute. I just think that the early incarnations are in keeping with the metaphoric connotations.
    – bib
    Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:21
  • @bib: Did people who used machines that read punch cards also say "run code"? Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 3:52

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