Why do we 'take' a photograph?

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Why do we 'take' a photograph?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon May 20, 2013 7:14 pm

The trouble with etymologies given for words in dictionaries is that they usually only deal with the principal sense. Take a photograph (the AHD seems to license other objects for this particular usage; I'm not convinced) is a well-known expression - I've copied the relevant definitions from Collins:

take v
22. (out of 64!) (Miscellaneous Technologies / Photography) (t, also intr): to make a photograph of or admit of being photographed

Other languages vary in the verb they employ in this construction (apparently, The French say 'take' {in French!} here and Germans say 'make' - and even in English 'make a photograph' has a following).

How did the verb take become associated with photographs - is it the metaphor 'capture a scene and lock it away as a photographic image'? There are tribes who think that a photograph steals the soul of the snappee. Nowadays, take in take a photograph / right / bath / walk / break is just the verb we use there - it's been bleached of any meaning it had and is now delexical. But surely it was chosen for a reason?
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Re: Why do we 'take' a photograph?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon May 20, 2013 9:46 pm

aaa
And then there’s the infamous ‘make/take a decision’ question (see here) – I’m in the make/take camp. But that's a matter of choice (see here).
__________________

Ken – May 20, 2013
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Re: Why do we 'take' a photograph?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed May 22, 2013 5:37 am

Edwin F Ashworth wrote: Nowadays, take in take a photograph / right / bath / walk / break is just the verb we use there - it's been bleached of any meaning it had and is now delexical. But surely it was chosen for a reason?
My original conjecture was that several different verbs were likely to have been in parallel use until a general preference emerged. Obvious candidates besides take would have been make (as you've already noted), do and maybe get; other, less obvious choices might have included render or commit.

However, etymologist Michael Quinion seemed to scotch that notion when answering a query submitted to his website WorldWideWords.org:
Q. From Barrie Street, Canada: Will you kindly let me know how (and why) the phrase a likeness of originated, in lieu of is a photograph of. The term seems to be used all the time in newspapers.

A. It goes back a lot further than photography, that’s certain — about a thousand years further back, in fact.

The word was being used to describe a thing that resembled another even before the first Millennium (it appears in its Old English form in the Lindisfarne Gospels, for example). We still use the word in the sense of resemblance when we say things like the family likeness is astonishing.

At about the same time, the word could also mean a thing created as a representation of something else, a copy of an object perhaps. It could also refer to an image of a person, such as a painting or a statue. By the seventeenth century, it had become common to use likeness when you meant a portrait. The verb phrase to take a likeness for painting a portrait seems to have first appeared in the eighteenth century. Here’s a latish example, from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens: “The demeanour of that gentleman at first suggested to her mind that he might be a taker of likenesses, so intently did he look at her, and so frequently did he glance at the little note-book by his side”. It was inevitable that the term would be extended to refer to the new-fangled photographs.

However, current usage seems to differ between Britain and North America. Here in Britain, when a likeness of appears, which it doesn’t that often, it almost always refers to a medium other than photography (statue, artist’s impression, cartoon) in which skill is involved in matching the representation to the original. The application to photographs seems to be more common in the USA and Canada, though not hugely so, to judge by the limited investigations I’ve been able to make of newspaper archives.
Quinion's explanation notwithstanding, it would be interesting to verify, from contemporaneous sources, the evolution of the language used in connection with the capturing of photographic images.

Incidentally, Etymonline.com has some notes about the coinage of the noun and verb photograph and the noun photography:
photograph (n.)
1839, "picture obtained by photography," coined by Sir John Herschel from photo- + -graph "instrument for recording," from Greek graphe "writing," from graphein "to write, express by written characters," earlier "to draw, represent by lines drawn" (see -graphy). It won out over other suggestions, such as photogene and heliograph. Neo-Anglo-Saxonists prefer sunprint. The verb, as well as photography, are first found in a paper read before the Royal Society on March 14, 1839.
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Re: Why do we 'take' a photograph?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed May 22, 2013 4:46 pm

Interesting material, Erik - thank you.

I'm not sure that photograph and likeness are interchangeable when I'm taking pictures.
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End of topic.
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