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Take the L

On losing without being a loser

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

2016 has been vile in many ways, but it’s been a terrific year for feuds. Dwayne Johnson v. Vin Diesel, Kimye v. Taylor Swift, Ryan Lochte v. Personal Responsibility — and it’s only August, baby. Feuds mean winners and losers, and while nobody likes to lose, there are few richer petty pleasures than deciding who “takes an L.” (Diesel, Swift, Personal Responsibility.)

I’ve had the phrase “take the L” on my mind recently, partly because I love a sturdy insult, partly because I’m trying to learn more sports stuff since I work at The Ringer, and partly because “take the L” is the rare dumb internet diss that is also quietly wise. I think of it now more as a platitude than a barb.

“Take the L” has been around for a while (like, decades) in various permutations, especially in sports, rap, and writing about sports and rap. It’s at an NFL-Twitter-taunt level of mainstream now, but some people are still confused by what it means. Take this excellent Reddit question: “Who is Meek Mills, what are “L’s’’, and why is he taking so many of them?

The top-ranked answer offers a succinct and accurate explanation of what it means to take an L:

Taking an L seems obviously bad. Losing is weakness and defeat. It’s fun to grunt at someone in a low voice, especially if they are your enemy. Add “bitch” at the end for extra panache. (Take the L, bitch, I hope to growl whenever I finally come face-to-face in a feats of strength contest with my enemy Jonathan Cheban.)

Yet the alternative to taking an L isn’t victory. The phrase implies you’re already licked. The competition is finished. The choice is: Accept your lumps and move on, or refuse to concede. “You can take an L or take the shell,” Rick Ross raps, but Rick Ross has actually taken several unambiguous L’s, so don’t listen to him. Meek Mill is still insisting that he didn’t take an L in his beef with Drake, and this only makes the loss itself look more embarrassing.

Taking an L doesn’t mean you are a loser. It’s an act, not an identity.

There are thousands of quotes about how failure is ~ actually good ~ on the internet and lacquered on the walls of startup offices and bedrooms across America, and most of them are flagrantly corny — but motivational posters about the merits of failure are a good little at-home therapy trick, reminders to take an L without giving up entirely.

When people tell you to take an L, they’re not telling you to lose. They’re telling you that you need to get over losing because you’ve already lost. They’re telling you, don’t have a tantrum, jabroni. This is a good lesson. This is Sesame Street hidden inside a jab, and the message is weirdly radical: Accept loss, keep your dignity. Live with it.

That’s how Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” begins, and it seems like it might be a paean to letting go, some sort of proto-KonMari tribute to shedding personal possessions, but then there’s the ending:

That last line: The narrator lets her shaky agony show for a moment; the whole vaguely Buddhist attitude is bogus. When I first read it in high school, I thought it was about how people should try to be more chill about losing things. I ignored the ending.

Now, I think “One Art” is about how difficult it is to take an L. There are failures that smear the delicate portraits drawn of ourselves in our heads. They hurt, but it’s a moment of reckoning with oneself that is necessary if you want to be a functional human with a stable sense of identity. “There is nobody more boring than the undefeated,” Tina Brown said, and sure, she said it right after Talk tanked, but it’s true. People get more interesting when they have some mixed seasons. Taking an L is swallowing your medicine. It’s placing accuracy above grandiosity and recognizing that things do not always pan out in your favor. The idea that anybody can have a perfect record is naive and almost goofy.

The inevitability of loss is hardly a balm against it, of course.

“Take the L” is still an effective jeer. But it’s an insult with a sage core.