take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

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take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Sep 26, 2009 6:49 am

Last week I read the following in the news:
<2009 “The killing of an accused senior Al Qaeda militant in Somalia yesterday could help to sever Al Qaeda's link to militants taking refuge in Somalia. . . . ‘There is serious talk that if you take out one of the three top Al Qaeda leaders, you cut off the logistical chain on the ground, so in that sense it may be seen as a success,’ . . .”—Christian Science Monitor, 15 September>
The above quote made me wonder about the origin of the slang phrase TAKE OUT or TAKE (SOMEONE OR SOMETHING) OUT (for kill, destroy, totally disable) and approximately when it came to be acceptable usage by serious speakers and writers. I somehow can’t visualize the expression emanating from the mouths of newsmen/journalists of yore (e.g. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, . . .), although nowadays I doubt if any newsperson would think twice about using it. And, in fact, Barack Obama, famously made use of it during the presidential campaign:
<2008 “‘. . . we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights,’ Obama said.”—USA Today, 28 August>
TAKE OUT (SOMEONE OR SOMETHING) / TAKE (SOMEONE OR SOMETHING) OUT verb phrase [1930s and still in use] (originally U.S.): To kill, murder; totally disable, destroy or obliterate a specific target; to beat an opponent. <Two snipers took out a whole platoon>, <Flying low, the plane took out the enemy bunker in one pass> <The tennis star took out his opponent in straight sets> (Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms)

CASSELL’S DICTIONARY OF SLANG said the following:

TAKE OUT verb 1) [late 19th century and still in use]: To knock out. 2) [1930s and still in use]: To kill, to destroy (a specific target). [abbreviation for Standard English take out of the picture]
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Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang was in agreement on the time frame [[by 1939] and the meaning, but offered as a possible origin: ‘perhaps from the football term take out, to block an opponent decisively.’
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I agree with Cassell’s that the earliest meaning of TAKE OUT was probably ‘knock out.’ But it seems to me that saying it was an abbreviation for take out of the picture is just speculation and there are many other just as likely unverifiable possibilities such as ‘take out of competition/contention,’ ‘take out of the game,’ ‘take out of the ring,’ etc. What is fairly probable, though, is that TAKE OUT or TAKE HIM OUT meaning ‘knock out’ was a term first used in the sport of boxing sometime around the turn of the 20th century:

THE LANGUAGE OF SPORT

TAKE OUT: To knock out an opponent. (took him out with a vicious left) also cool, flatten, ice, kayo, KO, put away, put out the lights, starch, stretch.
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The earliest boxing example I found was the following:
<1910 “From the time the first round was sixty seconds old, there was not a minute that Attell [[featherweight boxing champion of the world]] could not have put Neill [[a far inferior competitor]] away had he been so inclined. . . . As the gong sounded cries of ‘Take him out!’ were frequent and came from all parts of the building.”—New York Times, 25 February, page 9>
From the world of boxing, it seems that TAKE OUT moved into the world of the underworld as criminal jargon meaning ‘to kill, etc.’ (knock out ‘permanently’) as defined above. And the earliest example I found of this was from 1934, which predates the OED’s earliest quote of 1939:
<1935 “. . . ‘we decided to kill him’ because ‘dead men tell no tales.’ . . . There was some argument about that, but we finally decided to let Bill get his gun and we’d take him out. ‘We decided to kill him.’”—The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), 2 July, page 1> [[my earliest quote with meaning as defined above]]

<1939 “I'll take him out. . . . He'll think a bridge fell on him.”—The Big Sleep by R. Chandler, ii. page 26> [[OED’s earliest quote]]

<1967 “‘He took out two people who could have involved him’. . . ‘Took out? You mean he killed them?’”—Dead Pigeon by J. M. Fox, page 170>

<1975 “I took a few guys out and my rep was made.”—Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power (2005) by E. Torres, page 23>

<1978 “He was taken out yesterday. . . They ran him down.”—Housespy by M. Duffy, v. page 124>

<1980 “. . . Champ who packed a Walther P.38 thought he could handle Clement and Clement took him out.”—City Primeval (2002) by E. Leonard, page 171>
It is interesting to note that the famed slang lexicographer Eric Partridge and his editor Paul Beale who, in 1984, didn’t have the search power of the internet and didn’t have the benefit of the 2nd edition (1989) of the OED, thought as I originally did, that the expression came on the scene, with its present meaning, quite a bit later than the 1930s:

A DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH (1984) by Eric Partridge, edited by Paul Beale

TAKE OUT: To kill: Services [[military]], police: since circa 1970. . . Copied from one of the many disgustingly clinical euphemisms invented by the U.S. military to whitewash the Vietnam War. [[written before the OED’s 2nd edition (1989) provided earlier examples]]
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Partridge, however, was right about TAKE OUT being used as a military expression, but as shown above, that is not where it was first used.

Two books on war slang that I checked said the expression was not taken up by the U.S. military until the 1991 Persian Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991):

WAR SLANG (1994) by Paul Dickson

TAKE DOWN / TAKE OUT: To destroy [
]
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SWEAR LIKE A TROOPER: A DICTIONARY OF MILITARY TERMS AND PHRASES (2000) by William L. Priest

TAKE OUT USA (1991): To kill; to eliminate or destroy an enemy position, vehicle, or unit; aka ‘take down.’
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However, the following quotes show that the expression did exist as military jargon as early as 1955, although it is probable that the Gulf War gave it increased military prominence. I would note that while serving in the U.S. Army from 1964-1966 (Vietnam era with basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then off to bask in the wonders of nature in Alaska for the next couple of years – tough duty, but somebody had to do it!) I don’t remember hearing any military types talking of ‘taking out’ anything or anyone, although I do recall the unsurpassed military art form of applying the adjective mother-f**king to any noun one might care to name – there were some things that the military was just naturally good at! (<;)
<1955 “The purpose of the attack was to ‘take out’—as the strategist's jargon has it—the docks.”—The Times (London), 28 June, page 4/4>

<1962 “In terms of destructive area, this is a bomb that would take out a whole city.”—The Ipcress File by L . Deighton, xviii. page 109>

<1977 “A sudden air attack, which would take out London, on a scale comparable with the attacks on Dresden or Hiroshima in 1945.”—Times Literary Supplement (London), 15 April, page 464/4>

<1982 “For several hours, as a commanding officer and his officers tried to ‘take out’ the sniper with machine gun, rifle and artillery fire, his bullets ricochetted off rocks above our heads.”—Daily Telegraph (U.K.), 14 June, page 4/8>

<1983 (Book Review) “. . . Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who at a Whitehouse briefing before the operation [[the failed 1980 hostage rescue attempt in Tehran]], asked Col. Beckwith what he intended to do with the Iranian guards. ‘Take them out,’ said Col. Beckwith. ‘What do you mean?’ asked Mr. Christopher. ‘Will you shoot them in the shoulder?’ No, answered Col. Beckwith, they would each get two .45 caliber rounds between the eyes.”—Wall Street Journal, 9 November, page 28>

<1995 “The risk from further strikes was such that air operations over Bosnia virtually ceased, and Nato was forbidden to take out Bosnian Serb air defences.”—The Independent (London), 23 July>

<2003 “To gain public support for a pre-emptive war a national leader needs a conceivable if not verifiable threat, and the threat must come from an identifiable and easy-to-hate enemy. If you want to take out a country such as Iraq, first establish danger, preferably with the scariest scenario -- the imminent unleashing of weapons of mass destruction.”—Seattle Post Intelligencer (Washington), 29 August>
As far as the question of when TAKE OUT became part of the Queen’s English (although dictionaries still classify it as slang), I would say it probably happened in the 1990’s. Note that in the 1983 quote above, that Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher had no idea what it meant. In subsequent years, however, the verb phrase TAKE OUT became widely used in news reporting for describing the killing, obliterating, destroying, totally disabling, beating, etc. of just about anything from a military target to the opposing team in a sporting event. Of course, this raises the interesting question: At what point does slang become ‘Standard English’? The answer, I think, depends on who you want to believe – the people or the dictionaries. And in this instance, at least, I would go with the people.
<1995 “(article title) Yankees Take Out Mariners in 15th; Leyritz's Homer Provides 2-0 Lead”—Washington Post, 5 October>

<2003 “Instead of pummeling the enemy with an overwhelming display of force and then hunting down their leaders, the U.S. is taking the reverse approach — beginning with a series of bombing raids aimed at taking out the ruling regime. The ‘decapitation’ effort began in the early hours of the morning Baghdad time and was restarted later in the day. The shock and awe campaign, we are told, is still come.”—Time Magazine, 20 March>

<2006 “Tony Blair was ready to ‘take out’ Gordon Brown if he failed to back him publicly over the invasion of Iraq, according to David Blunkett. The former Home Secretary claims that Mr. Brown narrowly avoided the sack in 2003 after deciding to support the war in public at the 11th hour.”—Daily Mail (London), 11 October>

<2009 “The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has heard a Country Fire Authority captain feared on Black Saturday that the fires would take out the whole mountain area near Kinglake.”—AAP General News (Australia), 29 June>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)
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Ken G – September 25, 2009
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Sep 26, 2009 11:26 pm

The eponymous character in the TV mini-series Dexter (which features a serial killer who kills serial killers) spoke at one point of 'taking out the trash', which I thought was quite a nice pun to describe his avocation.
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by monjoride » Tue Jun 28, 2011 8:58 pm

[quote="Erik_Kowal"]The eponymous character in the TV mini-series [i]Dexter [/i](which features a serial killer who kills serial killers) spoke at one point of 'taking out the trash', which I thought was quite a nice pun to describe his avocation.[/quote]
that sounds like a really witty pun
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Jun 29, 2011 10:00 am

I've only skim read the above, but I would have thought the connection was with being 'taken out of the picture', as in being erased.
The famous photo of Stalin and Trotsky, where Trotsky was erased in later reprints, comes to mind.
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jun 29, 2011 10:19 am

Phil, if, rather than skim-reading, you care to full-cream-read Ken's posting, you will find that he did discuss your theory as it relates to the entry for 'take out' in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

The take-away from that appears to be 'show me the evidence'. :-)
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jun 29, 2011 1:54 pm

.. the action of taking someone out that I prefer is when a bloke got lucky and was able to take out a good sheila to the pictures on Saturday arvo ..

WoZ who has been taken out in many different ways .. and lives to tell the tale ..
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by PhilHunt » Fri Jul 01, 2011 2:19 pm

I found this on google but I'm not sure if the date is accurate.
The Century: Volume 36
books.google.com
1888 -
Would you credit that I took him out myself? The air brought him to, and he was none ... Well, I was n't, my dear sir ; it was the sight of that picture, which you were so good as to present to her, that made me first fall in love with ...
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jul 01, 2011 10:02 pm

Phil H., If you read the sentences that precede the ones you quoted, you will realize that ‘took him out’ refers to a fellow soldier taking a comrade, who was buried alive, out of his grave:
<1888 ‘And do you mean that your friend was buried alive?’ . . . ‘Upon my soul he was chucked into the ground!’ ‘And he was left there?’ ‘He was left their till I came and hauled him out.” . . . Would you credit that I took him out myself?”—The Century, Vol. 36, page 127>
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Ken – July 1, 2011
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Jul 02, 2011 12:05 am

Which just goes to show how easy it is to take the P out of skim-reading.
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Re: take out (kill, destroy, . . .)

Post by PhilHunt » Sat Jul 02, 2011 7:55 am

Sorry Ken, I couldn't see the full quote as google only gave me a snippet view of the text.
Yes Erik, thank you very much. I will full-fat read the quotes in future, just as long as they go past-your-eyes first.
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