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‘All the Good Meetings Are Taken’

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Peter Paul (Paulie Walnuts) Gualtieri,
of The Sopranos

A particular phrase was all over the news on Monday and Tuesday.

  • “Why did Donald Trump Jr. take a meeting with a Russian lawyer?” (CBS News headline)
  • “Trump Jr. previously acknowledged taking the meeting to learn damaging information about [Hillary] Clinton.” (The Associated Press)
  • “He reportedly took a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that he knew was coming from the Russian government.” (Vox)

Facing increasing criticism about his behavior, D.T. Jr., a master of irony, tweeted Monday: “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent.”

It will be apparent that the phrase I’m referring to is take a meeting. It’s an expression that has been on language mavens’ radar for years. Its provenance, clearly, is Hollywood. Woody Allen jumped on it in a scene in Annie Hall (1977):

 Two men, California-tanned,
stand by the French doors talking.

1ST MAN
Well, you take a meeting with him, I’ll
take a meeting with you if you’ll take
a meeting with Freddy.

2ND MAN
I took a meeting with Freddy.  Freddy
took a meeting with Charlie.  You take
a meeting with him.

1ST MAN
All the good meetings are taken.

William Safire picked up on it in The New York Times two years later:

When moguls gather, they take a meeting. Nobody meets, has a meeting, or convenes a group of colleagues: The omnipresent verb is to “take” a meeting, as if to snatch its minutes from the jaws of time or industry sharks.

The early Hollywood moguls were Jewish, and “take a meeting” comes from a New York Jewish construction initially seen in a couple of other phrases.  The first is “Take a haircut.” The poet Charles Bernstein, in an interview reprinted in his book My Way, remarked that his father’s experience of speaking Yiddish as a kid resulted, in his own household, in “pervasive idiomatic  insistences … that add texture and character to a person’s speech. For example, my father would say, ‘Close the lights’ or ‘Take a haircut.’” (Currently, take a haircut is most commonly used in financial contexts. A Way With Words, the public-radio language program and blog, defines it: “to accept a valuation or return that is less than optimal, especially to partially forgive a debt.”)

The second phrase is “take a schvitz,” or steambath. That penetrated all the way to the New York Italian-Americans of The Sopranos. In a Season 1 episode, Paulie remarks, “Why do you think those Russian leaders live so long? They take a schvitz every day.” (Presumably, this has some connection to the eliminatory “take a leak” and similar expressions, but I will not go there.)

Back to “take a meeting”: Commenters on the Wordwizard website suggest that it has a particular British meaning — to lead the meeting. That reminds me of another U.S.-British take distinction. We generally “make” a decision, while they “take” one.

The circumstances surrounding Donald Trump Jr. and his confab suggest why take a meeting has been so commonly used in accounts of it. He was asked to meet with the Russians, and he accepted. Hence, “taking” the meeting is comparable to agreeing to take someone’s phone call, as in a line from the 2007 novel Gold Diggers: “On the third day after she’d returned from St. Bart’s, she finally took his call.”

Etymology aside, it’s pretty clear that this is one meeting Mr. Trump Jr. wishes he had never taken. And you can take that to the bank.

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