I came across this sentence in a book:

"One especially strategic family room, where all these dark socio-cultural and political dimensions are dramatized brilliantly, is the kitchen, where the women of the home churn dreams, fears, social and political intrigues away."

I'm not all that fond of the sentence structure, but I was really wondering about the word churn in that context.

From contextual analysis, I think I understand the meaning of the sentence: the women congregate in the kitchen, where they have lengthy conversations about dreams, fears, society, and politics.

However, when I looked up the word churn in a dictionary, I couldn't find a good definition that mapped to this usage.

In addition to the process of making butter, Collins lists four additional meanings of the verb:

  • (sometimes foll by up) to move or cause to move with agitation ⇒ ideas churned in his head
  • (of a bank, broker, etc) to encourage an investor or policyholder to change investments, endowment policies, etc, to increase commissions at the client's expense
  • (of a government) to pay benefits to a wide category of people and claw it back by taxation from the well off
  • to promote the turnover of existing subscribers leasing, and new subscribers joining, a cable television system or mobile phone company

and Macmillan mentions:

  • [intransitive/transitive] to move something such as a liquid around violently, or to move in this way ⇒ the churning seas

  • [intransitive] if your stomach churns, you have a strong nervous feeling in it because you are worried, afraid, or upset ⇒ My stomach was churning before the first performance.

I suppose "ideas churned in his head" comes closest to the meaning in the book, but I don't get the feeling from the context that the women are particularly agitated. As a matter of fact, the use of the word away almost makes it seem like the conversations are therapeutic, not something that agitates or worries.

So, my questions are:

1) Is there some other definition of churn that I'm not aware of? Or is the author merely using some literary license, and bending the meaning of the word?

2) Assuming I'm interpreting the passage correctly, what other words could have been used in place of churn in this context?

  • 1
    It's not just churn; it's the phrasal verb churn away, which has a rather more focussed sense than simple buttermaking. Apr 24, 2013 at 2:39
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Agreed, but I'm sure that the play on words influenced the word choice. Mentioning women, kitchens, and churning together can't be a coincidence. Apr 24, 2013 at 2:49
  • Especially given the fact that in many idiolects, churn and turn are indistinguishable in speech. Apr 24, 2013 at 2:51
  • @JohnLawler: I should have mentioned that in my question; the dictionaries also mentioned phrasal verbs churn up and churn something out, but I couldn't find a churn away, which only perplexed me even more.
    – J.R.
    Apr 24, 2013 at 8:35
  • Phrasal verbs are productive. You can use away, for instance, to mean 'remove by Verbing', so that the verb can be metaphorical -- referring to constant busy purposeful movement -- but the result will be no dreams, fears, social or political intrigues in the kitchen. Apr 24, 2013 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


Like J.R., I don't see a good match between the language of the quoted sentence and any clear, recognized definition of churning.

The only definition of "churning away" that I'm familiar with carries a sense of purposeless activity; essentially it means "churning without a definite goal or foreseeable end," as in "He left the refrigerator door open, and the motor was just churning away all afternoon."

"Churning away" emphatically does not mean churning productively—not even at the impersonal, quota-driven level of "churning out," which, as Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate notes, involves "produc[ing] mechanically or copiously," but which frequently harbors an implication of poor or indifferent quality in the resulting output.

Making sense of the author's description of women churning away "dreams, fears, social [intrigues] and political intrigues" is complicated by the fact that one of the churned-away things (dreams) seems desirable, a second (fears) seems undesirable, and a third (intrigues) may be desirable or undesirable. Under the circumstances, it's hard to tell whether the women intend the churning to produce these things—or indeed whether the women have any clear intention at all with regard to their churning.

Maybe the author chose "churning away" to avoid the unflattering implications of "churning out." If so, I think it was a bad decision, since "churning away" does an exceedingly poor job of conveying what (I suspect) the author means. I would have suggested ending the sentence as follows:

...where the women of the home give voice to dreams and fears, and where elaborate social and political intrigues play out."

An author determined to tie the sentence to a kitchen-friendly verb could have used "cook up" or "brew up." Both have weaknesses of their own—"cook up" suggests fabrication of a deceptive kind, and "brew up" has witchy connotations—but at least they aren't borderline nonsensical, as "churn away" is.

  • 1
    Perhaps it's meant to imply aimlessness? Good points though, it's tough to discern any consistent meaning from context. Apr 24, 2013 at 17:54
  • @BraddSzonye, it definitely is. ("Here, the word 'away' is simply a mild intensifier to underscore the continuing motion", as someone nailed it for an unrelated, but enlightening case here: forum.wordreference.com/threads/churn-away.1029582)
    – Sz.
    Mar 3, 2016 at 14:10

This is a play on words:

  • figurative churning, as of ideas, and
  • literal churning, as of butter.

You can do both in a kitchen.

  • Yes, sometimes we don’t need to overthink it, it just means what we imagined or felt first time we heard it. Aug 4, 2023 at 15:20

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