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shameless pleading

Take off

Perhaps we should swallow our pride and ask the birds, eh?

Dear Word Detective: I can’t find any information at all as to why aircraft are said to “take off.” I understand the use of the word “landing,” but I can’t come up with a reason to use that particular phrase to say “start to fly.” Any assistance you can render will be greatly appreciated. — Dennis Chastain.

That’s a darn good question. And it may seem like a small thing; after all, the important thing is that it’s flying, right? But I read awhile back that scientists no longer agree on exactly why the wings of an airplane provide the lift needed to get it off the ground. Say what? Now you tell us you don’t know “exactly” how this thing works? So maybe all those people on the plane who believe that they have to pay close attention every minute because by doing so they’re actually keeping it aloft are right?

If you think I’m joking, Google “airplane wing lift.” Some say it’s Bernoulli’s Principle, others say Newton’s Third Law. I say it’s spinach, and I’ll stick to walking, thanks. I have a pretty good idea of how my feet work.

“Take off” is, of course, the point in every airplane flight where it’s most important to cross one’s fingers and “pay attention.” Interestingly, the verb “to take off” in the “Up in the air, Junior Birdmen” sense of departing terra firma in an upward direction predates powered flight by several decades. The basic verbal phrase “to take off” itself, however, has many senses and dates back to around 1400. The constituent parts of the verb, “take” and “off,” each possesses dozens of meanings, so when put together, a dizzying number of senses can, and have been, formed.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls “take” one of the “elemental words” of English, and notes that although its basic sense is “to grasp,” its range of meaning is so broad that it can only be understood in particular uses. “Off” as an adverb generally implies an action moving away from something (“Sam ran off to avoid the fight”) or resistance (“Bob held off the vampires with garlic powder”).

Put “take” and “off” together as a verb, and you still have several possible meanings.”Take off” can mean “to grasp and remove” (e.g., “take off your coat”), to “remove oneself abruptly” (“Sid took off as soon as his ex-wife arrived at the party”), to reduce a price, or to absent oneself from a job (“Take a week off before the holidays so you don’t go nuts”). Since the mid-18th century, “to take off” has also meant “to imitate, to counterfeit” (“taking” the appearance of the genuine article) and “to mimic or parody,” as in Saturday Night Live “take offs” of TV commercials.

“Take off” in the airport sense employs “take” in the sense of “remove, convey” with “off” meaning “away.” This particular use derived from the earlier sense of “take off” meaning “to go away” which first appeared in the early 19th century (“The Indian took off into the woods,” 1825). Around the same time, “to take off” began to be used to mean “to commence a leap” (“The spot where the horse took off to where he landed, is above eighteen feet,” 1814). The opposite of “to take off” in this sense is, of course, “to land,” which has been in use since the late 17th century, originally meaning “to step down from a carriage, etc.”

The aeronautical use of “take off” to mean “to become airborne” actually dates back to around 1849 (gliders and balloons preceded powered aircraft, of course), but the term really “took off” with the widespread adoption of commercial flight in the early 20th century. And it was the airplane use that gave us, in the 1960s, the “become very popular” sense I used above, as well as the sense meaning simply “rapidly increase” so often seen in market reports and consumer news (“Minerva took off, as we say, on a famous Friday the thirteenth. The stock rose from nineteen cents to over a dollar in the last half-hour of trading,” 1963).

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