By Denny Hilton, OED

Often some of the shortest words in English can carry the most weight, and these are the ones most likely to cause headaches for lexicographers. The OED’s original editor James Murray reckoned that the dictionary’s entry for the simple preposition, of, was the most difficult he’d encountered in his long editorship. Another two-letter heavyweight, the verb be, has over 2,000 variant forms and inflections listed in its OED entry; the etymology section alone runs to almost 10,000 words.

So it is with the entry for the verb go, newly revised and published on OED Online, and now containing 603 senses. That’s shy of the 654 senses of another short verb of motion, run, which remains the longest entry in the dictionary to date. But it’s still unusually large, and there are few words in the language comparable to go in scope, complexity, and usefulness. Its publication represents over a year’s work researching and editing by several editors in the OED team.

The challenge in editing such a word, beyond endurance, is how to present such a vast amount of information coherently, in a way which best reflects its development over time. Such elemental items of vocabulary rarely have single neat starting points, and go had a wide application from the word go, so to speak, with many of its familiar senses of literal movement already fully established in Old English. Fortunately, they fall into three distinct conceptual categories: to go is either to move generally (as in ‘she sings as she goes’), or to depart (‘it’s about time we went’), or to move towards somewhere or for a particular purpose (‘let’s go out for dinner’). The OED’s entry is structured around these concepts, each of which is given its own branch.

Branch I begins with a now obsolete sense meaning specifically ‘to walk’ or go on foot, as opposed to riding, sailing, etc. The idea of general motion becomes more figurative with the sense ‘to take or follow a certain path; to follow a certain course of action or way of proceeding’ (‘is this the right way to go?’), leading to the idea of ‘having a certain outcome’, of ‘turning out, faring’ (‘things went without a hitch’). The modern greeting, ‘how’s it going?’, is recognisable in Hastings’ enquiry in Shakespeare’s Richard III: ‘How goes the world with thee?’

Go’s notion of functioning or operating is familiar in a mechanical context (‘the engine won’t go’, ‘my computer’s going slow’), but originally referred to body parts. Chaucer’s Pardoner has hands and tongue which ‘go’ swiftly:

Myne handes and my tonge goon so yerne That it is ioye to se my bisynesse.

(c1405 (►c1390) Chaucer Pardoner’s Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) Prol. l. 70)

You might still complain that ‘your legs won’t go’, or say ‘his heart stopped going’.

Related to this is go’s expression of sound, with clocks ‘going’ or striking the hour, or alarms or guns going off. Things can ‘go’ crash or bang, or make any number of noises, and it’s this sense which evolves into the modern colloquial use for reporting direct speech: ‘…so he goes “no way”, and I go…’. We find this recorded earliest in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers:

He was roused by a loud shouting of the post-boy on the leader. ‘Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe,’ went the first boy. ‘Yo-yo-yo-yoe!’ went the second.

(1836 Dickens Pickwick Papers (1837) ix. 85)

Some of Branch I’s later senses deal with imperative uses. To shout ‘go!’ so as to encourage or cheer on a person, team, etc., has developed a modern nuance for expressing solidarity, or showing respect or admiration: ‘you go, girl!’. In a different context in mid-20th century America you might have shouted ‘go!’ at a musician, or said, ‘that cat can really go!’, meaning ‘to play jazz or similar (esp. improvised) music excitingly or uninhibitedly’. The suggestion of the verb swing perhaps colours our idea of ‘getting a party going’, or making it successful, lively, or exciting.

The second of OED’s three main semantic divisions, Branch II, covers go’s sense of departure, of leaving or ‘going away’. A productive association here is with dying or passing away, which crops up in a variety of constructions with the implicit notion of leaving this world for the next. You might say someone ‘went in their sleep’, or ‘has gone under’, ‘gone to a better place’, or ‘gone the way of all flesh’, to use one of several Biblical expressions. Less severely, you might use the verb to describe falling asleep or losing consciousness (‘I felt myself go…’). A clutch of related senses refer to faculties giving way or declining (‘his mind went’), and mechanisms failing (‘the brakes went’ – in which case you may need to get them ‘going’ again).

One use in Branch II is interesting for its peculiar construction with negatively-expressed adjectives, to mean ‘to be left in a specified state of condition’. Early examples refer to people ‘going unblessed’ or ‘going free’, but the sense of physical movement starts to weaken or disappear over time, with reference to things ‘going unsaid’, or ‘going unheard’. The branch also has a strong commercial link, with go used to convey the idea of money being spent, of currencies being exchanged, prices being set at a certain level, and property ‘going for millions’.

Branch III contains those senses of the verb which have a definite notion of destination, of moving towards somewhere or something. One colourful use is in imprecatory phrases ‘expressing hostility, contempt, or defiant indifference, and desire to be rid of the person addressed’. ‘Go to hell!’, or ‘Go to the devil!’, are recognizable, but at various times in the past you might have reached as usefully for ‘go to Bath!’, ‘Go to Halifax!’, or ‘Go to Hong Kong!’.

A substantial sense in this branch deals with the different ways go can be constructed to express movement towards somewhere ‘so as to perform a specified action, or for the purpose of a specified or implied activity’, e.g. ‘to go do something’, ‘to go and do something’, ‘to go to do something’, ‘to go doing something’, etc. These are often idiomatic. To say ‘I’m going to bed’ is to express more than just movement towards a bed; there is an implicit indication of purpose or activity, here of sleeping. This can be helpfully euphemistic, as is the case with ‘to go to the restroom’.

An important section in Branch III concerns passing into a certain state or condition: ‘to go quiet’, ‘to go red’, ‘to go cold’, etc. A striking aspect of these uses is the dominant idea of deterioration, of going to seed, going to the dogs, or going to pieces, or of going mad, crazy, bananas, etc.

One of go’s main cruxes is its past tense ‘went’. This started life as the past tense of a different verb altogether: wend. The revised etymology section at wend explains in detail its transition from wend to go in early modern English, while Branch IV at go gathers together other grammatically-specific uses of the past and present participles, ‘gone’ and ‘going’. The latter is notable for its use in ‘expressing a plan or intention that something will happen, or making a prediction’ (as in ‘it’s going to rain’). ‘Going’ was used like this as far back as the late 1400s, but its colloquial contractions gonna and gunna, separate entries on OED Online, are more recent 19th century developments.

Many uses of the form ‘gone’ are associated with statements of age or time: ‘he’s just gone sixteen’, ‘in times gone by’, ‘it’s gone noon’, ‘five years ago gone Tuesday’. As with the word ‘past’, the line between verb and adjective here isn’t clear, and OED’s entry for the adjective, gone, explains how it developed out of the perfect construction of go with be as auxiliary (‘the day is gone’).

Ideas of time passing or elapsing run throughout go (think of time going by, or the day going on, or of years going round, or of the unusual use of the infinitive in ‘five minutes to go’). A newer development is represented by the phrase to be (a specified age) going on (another age), dating to 1942 and meaning ‘to be a particular age but wish to be, behave, or feel like a much older or younger person’.

One of the biggest growth areas in the entry during revision was the section of Phrasal Verbs covering particular uses of the verb with adverbs or prepositions, as to go in, to go on, to go up, etc. To go out is almost an entry in its own right with 32 senses; understandable when you think of the many things which can go out: tides, fires, lights, TV programmes, cheques, footballs; you might be going out with someone, you might go out tonight, etc.

The two newest senses in the entry are developments of the phrasal verbs to go on and to go up, both dating to 1995 and referring to using the Internet, web sites, or social media, as in ‘I went on Facebook’, and ‘the video went up on YouTube’. Similarly recent is the phrase don’t (even) go there!, used to warn ‘don’t talk about that, stay off that subject’, and recorded earliest in a 1993 talk show. Going forwards, a phrase especially loved in modern business and management circles, goes backwards to 1976.