To “take”

I’ll take Confounding Words for $100, Alex.

Dear Word Detective: Can you enlighten me as to the origin of the phrase “it didn’t take?”  What exactly did it not take? The cake? The bait? The day off? — KT.

That’s a darn good question, but a tricky one to answer. “It didn’t take” and similar uses have become standard idioms in English, and idioms are often hard to explain because they usually “mean” more than just the literal meanings of their parts. In this case, the sense of “take” in question is just one of dozens of senses of the verb “to take,” and the connection of many of them to the original meaning of the word is tenuous, convoluted, and possibly impossible to explain. In explaining a phrase such as “it didn’t take,” often the best we can do is to explain what the phrase means, not precisely how “take” itself came to mean what it means in that context. But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

“Take” first appeared in Old English as “tacan,” from the Old Norse “taka,” meaning “to grasp, seize, take hold of,” based on old Germanic roots meaning “touch.” This general sense of “grasp” evolved into two primary senses of “take,” that of “to grasp, seize, or appropriate something” and “to receive or accept something given.” The first sense gives us such uses as “take a bite of food,” “take a break,” “take a look” and so on. The second is found in “take punishment,” “take advice,” “take in” shocking news, and similar uses. These two categories are, however, only general and many uses of “take” are too idiomatic to make literal sense if analyzed closely. Such uses as “Your dog takes to me,” “We might take him by surprise,” or “Don’t take your anger out on that clerk” don’t have any simple explanation based on other meanings of “take.”

In speaking of something “taking” in such uses as “It didn’t take,” we generally mean that the thing, plan or act did not have the intended effect or had no lasting effect (“Bob was warned about being late several times, but it didn’t take and he was fired.”). This sense of “take” dates back to the early 17th century and has been in common use since then (“She was married…. The year she came out. But it didn’t take.” Budd Schulberg, 1941). So to say something “didn’t take” means that it didn’t work and won’t last.

This use of “take” seems to be a figurative derivative of the use of “take,” starting in the 15th century, to describe the process of a seed or planting putting down roots and beginning to grow, in a sense “grasping” the earth (“We planted a thousand cedars of Lebanon, with shoots 6 in. high, and we have no doubt that they will take well.” 1892). This seems about as close to the “grasp, seize” original meaning of “take” as we can get. “Take” has also been used, since the 19th century, to mean a successful skin or tissue graft or transplant (“The transplanted pieces of skin… were found to have ‘taken’ remarkably well.” Lancet, 1875).

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