Take your pick.

Dear Word Detective: The talking heads use the phrase “take on” often, as in “What is your take on this situation?” or “Let’s hear from Susan and her take on what happened.” Any idea where this started and why it’s so prevalent? — Jon King Keisling.

That’s a good question. I know the usage you mean, which has been popularized on TV news discussion shows such as “Hardball.” The phrase “your take on” is used on such shows to mean “your opinion of” or “your understanding of,” as in “So what’s your take on the decision by the Flubber campaign to push voter registration for domestic pets, Andy?”

The problem in pinning down the origin of this usage is that the word “take,” although it has only four letters, has literally dozens of meanings, especially as a verb. Derived from an ancient Germanic root meaning “to touch,” the verb “to take” can mean “to grasp, seize, grip” (to “take prisoners,” for instance) or “to be seized by illness” (“to be taken ill”), “to swindle,” “to capture the attention or affection of” (“I was quite taken by her”), “to show an effect” (“We waited for the antibiotic to take”), “to put something into one’s own hand” or the like (“I took the sword from him”), “to swallow” (“Take two aspirin”), and so on. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 94 separate senses and sub-senses of the verb “to take.”

The noun “take” (which “your take on” contains) is a bit less complex than the verb, but still carries ten major senses, including “take” meaning “a section of motion picture film taken at one time” (“Let’s try another take, this time with feeling”) and “take” as “money obtained by theft or fraud” (“We’ll split the take four ways”).

It is possible that the “take” in “your take on” is drawn from the movie use of “take,” with the sense of “version” or “interpretation.” But I think it’s more likely that the “take” we’re looking for is the use, as a noun, of one sense of the verb “to take.”

As a verb, “to take” has, since the 14th century, carried the sense of, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “To receive and hold with the intellect; to grasp mentally, apprehend, comprehend, understand.” This is the sense of “take” we use in phrases such as “I take it you’re not coming to the party” or “What kind of idiot do you take me for?” It seems clear that this is the sense of “take” in “your take on,” since it fits nicely with the meaning “to comprehend, to understand.”

Unfortunately, although some dictionaries now acknowledge this use of “take,” they furnish no background on its history. My guess (based on personal memory) is that it probably started as slang in the 1970s and gradually began appearing in the mass media in the 1980s. As for why it has become so widespread, especially on TV news shows, I think that it provides the informality such shows crave. Ask a guest for his or her “interpretation” or “opinion” of a news event, and you’re likely to get a windy dissertation. Ask for “your take,” and you’ve made it clear that what is wanted is a quick impression, not a detailed analysis. It’s the perfect phrase for a genre of “news coverage” that consists largely of snap judgments of sound bites.

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