‘Takedown’: 454 Years of Humiliation

June 4, 2016

‘Takedown’: 454 Years of Humiliation
Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2016

If there is an online genre of the moment, it just might be the “takedown.”

Those who sympathize with these withering critiques of an opposing view often share them appreciatively. In the typically breathless style of clickbait exhortations, such critiques are often hyped as “epic.”

These days, Donald Trump is often the target. Thus we see headlines like “Elizabeth Warren Lays Waste to Donald Trump With This Epic Takedown,” from the Huffington Post, or “ Jake Tapper’s ‘Pro-Truth’ Donald Trump Takedown is a Shining Example of the Journalism We Need,” from the women’s website Bustle.

While an “epic takedown” sounds like a devastating attack that one could hardly survive, very often—as is the case with Mr. Trump—the person on the receiving end may not even seem chastened by the criticism.

The roots of the combative word lie in the phrasal verb “take down,” which has been used since the 14th century for the action of moving something to a lower position. As early as 1562, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “take down” could also be used for humbling a person or keeping someone’s arrogance in check.

The humiliating sense has sometimes appeared in longer idiomatic phrases like “take down a peg” or “take down a buttonhole.” InSamuel Butler’s narrative poem “Hudibras,” from 1664, a character boasts of besting his opponents: “We still have worsted all your holy tricks…and took your grandees down a peg.” While it is unclear what the “peg” originally referred to, some believe it was an allusion to the pegs on a ship used to raise and lower flags, or to a peg-tankard. Meant for group drinking, such a tankard measured a person’s assigned portion by means of a vertical row of pegs.

By the mid-19th century, the noun “takedown” began to get used for the act of humbling someone. An 1866 item in the Monthly Packet, a British magazine, mocked those who claim to be misunderstood “if their vanity gets a takedown.”

In American usage, “takedown” soon took on an array of meanings, including a win in gambling or a police arrest involving physical restraint. In wrestling and martial arts, “takedown” came to refer to a maneuver in which an opponent is swiftly brought down to the ground from a standing position. A 1939 report on scoring in college wrestling meets explained, “for a takedown he [the wrestler] gets two points.”

The wrestling move has likely informed more recent uses of the word for rhetorical slams. Notably, it joins a family of rowdy nouns derived from phrasal verbs with “down” in them, including “throwdown,” “beatdown” and “smackdown.” All of these terms have moved from the physical realm to more verbal assaults. “Throwdown,” for instance, gained popularity in hip-hop circles in the 1980s to describe a particularly intense performance in a freestyle rap battle.

As for the recent surge in “takedowns,” it is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for our times, as political confrontations begin to look more like pro wrestling.

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