The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s the takeaway?

Q: Sometimes the things political pundits say on the air send me screaming from the room. Other times, I just cringe and stick my fingers in my ears. Take, for example, “takeaway,” a word that sticks in my craw. WHERE did it come from?

A: We first noticed this use of the noun “takeaway” about five years ago when a newcomer brought it with him to our rural New England town.

But the usage was undoubtedly around in the US before that, and it has roots in an earlier adjectival use in Britain dating from the early 1960s.

As far as we know, however, only one standard dictionary, British or American, includes this newish sense of “takeaway.”

The recently published American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this definition: “The lesson or principle that one learns from a story or event. Used with the.”

Most of the Oxford English Dictionary’s entries for the adjective and noun “take-away” (which it hyphenates) have to do with the kind of food that Americans call “takeout” (a term that’s been in use in the US since the early 1940s).

In Britain, for example, “take-away” is food that’s meant to be eaten off the premises, and a “take-away” is a shop that sells takeout food. These date from ’60s and ’70s, the OED says.

But the OED has a more general definition of the adjective “take-away,” referring to anything “that may be taken away.” And—voila!—here’s where we find usages similar to the one we’re after.

The citations the OED gives for the general adjective “take-away” refer to food (early 1960s), exam papers (early ’70s), and finally to messages or lessons (mid-’70s).

Here, for example, is one from a 1976 issue of Nature magazine: “The takeaway message of the Dunbars’ monograph is that superficially similar social systems may be the product of different behavioural arrangements.”

And this one is from the London Review of Books (1982): “As a takeaway sample of what he had in mind, Alvarez contrasted the horses of Larkin’s poem ‘At Grass’ … with the ‘urgent’ horses of Ted Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses.’ ”

So what’s the takeaway here? Should we conclude that the message or lesson sense of the noun “takeaway” is ultimately derived from the food term?

Perhaps, but the answer is probably much simpler. It seems likely to us that the sense of “takeaway” as a lesson or message is merely an extension of the verbal phrase to “take away.”

We’ve often heard similar (though less annoying) usages, like “What did you take away from the corporate retreat?” and “I took away a feeling of camaraderie.” It’s only a short jump to “What was your takeaway from the corporate retreat?”

While we’re at it, we should mention that the noun has other definitions as well. As American Heritage says, a “takeaway” can be “a concession made by a labor union during contract negotiations; a giveback.”

And in sports terminology, a “takeaway” is also an act or instance of taking away the ball or puck from an opposing team, according to AH and to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Both the OED and Merriam-Webster’s include another sports usage, in which “takeaway” means the initial movement of  a golf club at the beginning of a backswing. The OED’s first example is from the early 1960s.

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