Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?
A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).
The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:
“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.
In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”
At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.
And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).
The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.
The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).
Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.