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).
Send it to Dev Null, Manager of Customer Relations.
Dear Word Detective: I noticed that information sites are always encouraging people to “drop us a line.” Fishing? Phishing? Or just plain friendly? Do you know where the expression “drop me a line” originates? — Margherita Wohletz.
Wow. You’re not going to believe this, but I was cleaning out an old desk in the barn today, and I found your question on a scrap of yellowed paper wedged behind one of the drawers. Looks like you sent it way back in 2008. The raccoons had gotten to it, but I managed to make out the writing by holding it up to a candle flame.
See, I told you you wouldn’t believe me. Hey, I’ve been busy lately. I don’t know how I missed your question back then, but I’m glad I found it, because it’s actually a great topic. I have the sense that the popularity of “drop us a line” has faded a bit in the age of email, but it’s actually, as we shall see, every bit as applicable to email as to postal mail.
Our modern English word “line” is actually the result of a merger of two earlier words, the Old English “line” meaning “cord, rope, series, row” and the Middle English (originally French) “ligne,” meaning “thread, cord, linen thread.” Not surprisingly, the two words had a common source, the Latin “linea,” flaxen, from “linum,” flax.
If the noun “line” were a Swiss Army knife, it would have 75 blades and weigh twelve pounds. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “line” goes on close to forever and divides the uses of the word into five main senses, each with numerous particular uses: “cord or string,” including cables, fishing lines, and lines aboard ship; “thread-like mark,” including lines drawn for various purposes, a musical passage, mathematical lines, a political policy (as in “party line”), information (“Get a line on”) and geographical boundaries (“Mason-Dixon Line”); “line” as “applied to things arranged along a (straight) line,” including a row of people or things, railway lines, battle lines, rows of letters in text, and conveyances routinely following a set route (bus lines, airlines, etc.); “line” used to denote “serial succession,” as in “family line,” and “line” meaning “direction or course of movement,” as in a “line” of business, or a “line of credit.” The OED goes on to enumerate more than a dozen compound and combination terms also involving “line,” such as “linebacker” and “line-loss” (electrical leakage). I am in awe of this dictionary entry and I hope I never have to read it again.
Meanwhile, back at your question, I direct your attention to Sense III, subsense 23, “line” meaning “a row of written or printed letters.” Subparagraph (a) therein refers to “One of the rows of letters in any piece of writing,” as in the lines of text making up any printed document. These are the “lines” found in the phrase “to read between the lines,” meaning, as the OED puts it, “to discover a meaning or purpose not obvious or explicitly expressed in a piece of writing.”
Two sections south of there, in subparagraph (d), we hit pay dirt, namely “line” defined as “a few words in writing; often applied to a short letter.” This usage dates back to 1647 (“I … desire a line under your own hand to whom I shall deliver the castle,” H. Markham), and has been in common use ever since. The “drop” part of the idiom “drop a line” is a usage dating back to at least 1769 meaning “To let (a letter or note) fall into the letter-box; hence, to send (a note, etc.) in a casual or informal way.” (OED) (“I will drop a line as often as I can,” John Quincy Adams, 1777).
The practice of dropping mail into boxes at the Post Office or on the street corner is, sadly, fading away today, but the point and click nature of email more than fits the “casual” sense of “drop a line.” And to “drop someone a line” is to stay in touch in a personal, one-to-one sense, where even just a short note can mean far more than just another Facebook “like.”
We’ll bait the trap with black coffee and blue pencils.
Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the phrase “at large” as in “editor-at-large” or “the fugitive is at large.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) indicates that “at one’s large” to mean “at liberty” has been in use since the 14th century, but how did this come to refer to editors? And what does it currently mean? — Jackie.
Editors? I thought they were extinct. If they’re really running around “at large,” I wish someone would round them up and send them to the internet. Have you seen it lately? Even the websites of established print journals are full of typographical errors and half-baked edits that produce gibberish. Oh well, I’m probably paying too much attention to this stuff.
Living out in the country, I pay special attention to the phrase “at large” because rarely a month passes around here without a fugitive miscreant “at large” being apprehended loping through the corn. And then there was the “exotic animal collector” who released lions and tigers and bears down the road from us last year. There’s nothing like hearing that Bengal tigers are “at large” in your area to focus the mind (specifically on other, saner places to live).
“Large” is an interesting word because its original meaning in English is now obsolete, but it remains an exceptionally common word in senses that developed after its first appearance. When “large” appeared in English in the late 12th century, it meant “generous, lavish, bountiful,” reflecting its source in the Latin “largus” meaning “abundant and lavish.” This sense, now obsolete, developed into meaning “ample” or “copious,” and from there came into use in spatial descriptions meaning “roomy, spacious, etc.” From that “roomy” sense most of our modern uses of “large” developed, including “large” in various senses denoting great size as well as “large” in figurative senses describing the fullness or great substance of something, from “largeness of heart” (“That uxorious King, whose heart though large, Beguil’d by fair Idolatresses, fell To Idols foul,” Milton, 1667) to the “largeness” of more worldly treasures (“He made large profits on some articles, but his business did not pay on the whole,” 1902).
Meanwhile, that early sense of “large” meaning “roomy, spacious” had sprouted a slightly different branch of “large” in the sense of “free, unrestricted, without limitation.” Thus to be “large of circumstances” meant to have enough money to be able to live free of want or worry (“Many families who the last week were in large circumstances, were now reduced to beggary,” 1738), a sense still found in the US slang phrase “to live large,” meaning “to be wealthy and spend extravagantly.” In nautical use, a wind blowing from behind the ship was “large” because it provided freedom and ease of navigation to the vessel; to sail “by” the wind, on the other hand, was to sail into the wind, a trickier business. “By and large” as a nautical term meant “in any possible circumstance,” and eventually came to be used ashore to mean “in most cases; for the most part.”
This use of “large” to mean “free and easy; without restraint” gave us “at large” in several senses. The phrase first appeared around 1400 in the sense of literally “free, without restraint” (“Here walk’d the Fiend at large in spacious field,” Milton, 1667), still used in news stories about fugitives. “At large” was also, beginning in the 17th century, used to mean “in general, not in any particular sense,” a use now most familiar in “at-large delegate,” etc., meaning one who represents, for example, a whole state rather than one particular town or region. This brings us to “editor at large,” “writer at large” and similar phrases which simply mean that the person is “free” to pursue projects or topics covering a wide range, often of their own design, rather than to simply fulfill assignments.