English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Take a listen, please!

Q: On CNN, all the anchors use the expression “take a listen” instead of just “listen” or “listen to this.” Does that sound as caustic to you as it does to me?

A: We don’t know about caustic, but it certainly sounds condescending and lame. It’s no doubt the speaker’s way of avoiding “Listen to this.” Let us quote from the entry for this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit’s Dictionary (2d ed.), by Robert Hartwell Fiske:

“As inane as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously says nothing that listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase ought to be silenced; businesspeople, dismissed; public officials, pilloried.”

Well, we don’t think it’s as bad as all that, but the phrase is certainly overworked. We just googled “take a listen” and got several million hits (and a great many of them are complaints about the usage).

The expression hasn’t made it yet into modern dictionaries, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Cambridge Dictionaries Online include examples of somewhat similar usages.

Here’s the American Heritage example: “Would you like to give the CD a listen before buying it?”

And this is the example from Cambridge Dictionaries: “Have a listen to this!”

The word “listen,” by the way, has been used as a noun for about 250 years in expressions like “to be on the listen” or “to have a proper listen.”

In fact, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “listen” as a noun dates from the 1300s. In an apparent reference to becoming deaf or hard of hearing, the writer wonders if someone “has losed the lysten.”

The OED’s  modern examples of the noun usage, in which the word means an act of listening, begin with this citation from the December 1788 issue of The American Museum, a literary journal published in Philadelphia:

“Every time the door opens, or a foot is on the stairs, you are on the listen.” (The article, “To the Bachelor,” is signed by “Aspasia,” possibly the pen name of Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, a Philadelphia writer and intellectual.)

Later OED examples include these: “She was often on the watch, and always on the listen” (1884); “constantly on the listen” (1935); “take a listen” and “have a proper listen” (both 1968); “I had a long listen” (1970); and “Give it a listen” (1971).

[Note: This post was updated on June 18, 2020.]

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