My ask

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At lunch on Saturday, Paul Armstrong asked me about my ask 'my request'. A mutual friend (Tom Limoncelli, who I'll quote in a moment) had peeved on his blog the day before about this usage, and Paul was somewhat taken aback by Tom's rancor; Paul himself didn't find the usage so bad.

At the time, I didn't recall having heard things like my ask before, though it turns out I had — memory is a VERY tricky thing — but I opined that the noun ask was likely to be venerable, probably going back to Old English. And so it is and does, but the full story is more interesting than a simple survival of a lexical item from a millennium ago.

But first… back a millennium. A natural innovation in Old English would have been to create a noun directly from the verb ask (or its pre-OE forebear); that would have been a useful thing to have, and so it happened. Yes, a nouning of a verb. (Adam Albright posted here some time ago on nouning of verbs in OE and what happened to these nouns afterwards.) The crucial point here is that the noun request wasn't around then. According to the OED, it appeared in Middle English, in the 14th century (when borrowings from Old French began swarming into the language), and, about 200 years later, we got the verb request (a verbing, either in English or in Old French, it's hard to tell). So a noun ask was a good thing to have while we were waiting for the French-based request to arrive.

The OED has three early cites, between roughly 1000 and 1230, and then a huge gap until these two cites:

1781 T. TWINING Let. 8 Dec. in Recreat. & Stud. (1882) 108, I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to..answer all my asks.

1886 ‘CAVENDISH Whist127 When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.

It's hard to know what to make of either the paucity of the cites or the apparent cut-off point over a hundred years. Thanks to Google Books, I can add one cite to these:

These and other similar conditions would render it doubtful whether an ask for trumps at the commencement of the game was desirable. [Alfred Wilks Drayson, The Art of Practical Whist (1879), p. 123]

So there seems to be a specialized use in card playing (where it refers not to a request in general, but to a specific kind of request), which continues to the present:

The free newsletter from The Bridge World magazine, … West, showed 0 or 3; then, in reply to an ask for the diamond queen, … (link)

Chilli is an unusual bridge bidding system that places simplicity and universality … Apart from as a response to an ask, 4NT is the same as in a neutral … (link)

That leaves the 1781 Twining cite as the most recent. Albright treated the noun ask as one (among many) of the nouned verbs that eventually dropped out of English (while many others survived as perfectly ordinary nouns in the language). This turns out to be not quite right; instead, a noun ask seems to have been innovated on a number of different occasions.

These occurrences have been noted here on Language Log by Eric Bakovic (in 2004) and by Lynne Murphy (last year) on her Separated by a Common Language blog, both expressing initial astonishment that any speaker could say such things. Tom Limoncelli, on the other hand, was enraged; from his LiveJournal of 4 July:

My ask is that…

I feel huge amounts of pain every time a business person nounifies “ask” as in, “My ask is that you approve this budget before Friday.” The right word to use is “request”, but business people are evolving our language.

It is tempting to fight back by writing ask in quotes:

My “ask” is that you approve this budget before Friday

to emphasize that it is not proper English.

The Bakovic and Murphy postings provoked comments from readers who identified two specialized uses of the noun ask: in financial contexts, to mean 'asking price' (where it contrasts with bid and patterns with the specialized nounings put and call) –

For example, a bid of $10 and an ask of $11 for stock ABC is a fairly large spread, meaning the buyer and seller are far apart. (link)

and in fund-raising contexts, to refer to a request for contributions or grants. Here's Liz Ditz commenting on Eric's Language Log posting:

It is a turn of phrase from fundraising or philanthropy, which became ubiquitous about 5-10 years ago [that would be the mid-to-late 90s], meaning a grant request. "We have a big ask out to the GotRocks Foundation, and four or five smaller asks to community foundations." I remember being startled on first hearing it, but can't place the year.

These three specialized uses — in card-playing, finance, and fund-raising — make a lot of sense. They work BECAUSE ask (rather than request) stands out as not a normal noun; the usages suggest that something more specific than just requesting is going on. (These three uses are not separately listed in the OED, and it's an interesting question of lexicographic practice whether they should be.) Presumably the uses were innovated independently of one another, in different social groups and for different reasons, and none of them continue the older noun uses of ask.

The verb ask is always available for nonce nouning, as in this Emily Post advice, where ask as a coinage is marked by quotation marks:

The All-Important “Ask”

There are two different ways of asking someone out on a date.

… A good “ask” would go something like this: …

But, as you can see from Limoncelli's posting (and comments on Bakovic's and Murphy's), the noun ask seems to be in more general use in some circles. Limoncelli points to business talk, and others have suggested the computer industry. Actual cites suggest even wider usage, though possibly with business and computers at the center. Given these cites, it's also plausible that this wider usage is a generalization of the investment and/or fund-raising uses, though I see no way that this could be demonstated. A sampling of hits:

We went to an few events on Bainbridge Island and on the way back I made my ask of the campaign manager. "Can I have an internship?" I asked. (link)

My ask of Ex-Googlers. Sure there's people leaving Google these days for start-ups, angel investing, advisory boards, or just plain early retirement. … (link)

If you are trying to get to know them, make your “ask” of them in a direct and concise manner, and leave it to them to get back to you. (link)

Our ask of government in this specific regard would enable us to demonstrate the strategic and financial advantages of working consistently across the area. (link)

Jun 15, 2008 … responses are usually just "huh? thats pretty cool" or, "trippy" or they just go on about their experiences and bypass my ask for help. (link)

My ask for Jacob is this….what about RSS? I haven't seen much in the way (in general) on the subject of the usability of RSS … (link)

BTW – thanks to all of you that responded to my ask for reviewers. I am going to get back to everyone this weekend to get the ball rolling. (link)

In any case, it's clear that the noun ask is alive and well these days.

But wait! There's more!

What caught Bakovic's and Murphy's eyes in the first place was yet another specialized use of the noun ask, namely with an adjective denoting large quantity, with somewhat specialized meaning. In between these two postings, the OED inserted a draft addition (of January 2005) for this use:

colloq. (orig. Austral.) (chiefly Sport). With modifying word or phrase, as a big (also huge, etc.) ask: something which is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount. Cf. tall order at TALL adj. 8d.

1987 Sydney Morning Herald 7 May 40/2 Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer, Johnny Lewis, that four pounds is ‘a big ask’.

1994 J. BIRMINGHAM He died with Felafel in his Hand (1997) viii. 177 I'd..get him to wear the underpants consistently for six weeks on the road. (This was not a big ask given Milo's unwashed jeans-wearing record at King Street.)

2000 Rugby World June 25/1 It was a huge ask of my players, but their attitude throughout the week prior to the game was superb.

2003 Gloucester Citizen (Nexis) 1 Feb. 48 Every week is a bit of an ask — but the squad is very strong.

(A commenter on Bakovic's posting also noted that this usage is a recognized Australianism. This fact probably explains why Paul Armstrong, who is Australian, found Tom Limoncelli's rancor surprising.)

The OED's cites are all from sport — but from the UK as well as Australia. But Bakovic had a US non-sport cite, and here are some further non-sport cites, from various locations:

She describes her ideal match thus:. My ideal match would be someone who is caring and open and values and respects me, hopefully not too big an ask! [UK] (link)

Simply staying awake is now just too big an ask? And this is not some small-town hickville district-court magistrate, but the JUDGE … [South Africa] (link)

It is a lot to ask of a 50 minute programme with so many people involved to be able to do that and indeed it proves too big an ask, … [from Birmingham, UK] (link)

For most people, this is too big of an ask. Judy responded b to create a menu of exciting new engagement … [Framingham, MA] (link)

The current security guidelines of providing your information, the expectation of not bringing a weapon into the White House, walking through an x-ray machine and having your bag x-rayed doesn't seem like too big of an ask or real inconvenience. [US] (link)

(Note the variety of types of adjectival modification: the default structure in a big ask, ordinary exceptional degree modification in too big an ask, exceptional degree modification with of in too big of an ask.)

I think you can expect to hear things like a big ask more and more.

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34 Comments »

  1. Mr Punch said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    The usage of "ask" as a noun with which I am familiar, in a vaguely political context, has to do with substance and specificity — it's precisely what is being requested. I may discuss an issue with someone, and request support in general terms; the ask is what, in particular, I want my interlocutor to do (make a phone call, endorse a statement, etc.).

  2. Roadrunner said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    It's also common in lobbying and government.

    Our ask this month is for cosponsorships for this bill.

    We have three asks–reauthorize at a higher level, increase funding by $3 million, and a new program to expand the target population.

  3. Roadrunner said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    Or, what Mr. Punch says.

    I agree about the implication of specificity. General support is not an ask–a specific money amount or specific action of support (cosponsorship, etc.) is.

  4. Grant Barrett said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    I think you can expect to hear things like a big ask more and more.

    What's that statement a symptom of? The "future frequency illusion"? :)

  5. John Cowan said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

    I don't think that fancy as a noun (in the linked post) is actually frozen. In addition to "flights of fancy", as recently as Victorian times there was a soppy love song "She's All My Fancy Painted Her" (parodied by Lewis Carroll with the significant substitution of "him" for "her" — but not "he" for "she"); the word seems to me only slightly archaic for 'imagination'. See also Coleridge.

  6. misterb said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

    I can attest to hearing noun "ask" in computer business discussions in the late '80s. It was unusual enough for me to note as a jargon specific to the customer (a large famous high-tech company) However that company splintered (as many do), and the usage may have spread with the refugees.

  7. HP said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    I work for a large software development company and have never heard "ask" nouned. My office is in the US, but we have offices all over the world, and I have run across such non-USian expressions as "do the needful." I'll keep an ear out for it, though.

    Something about the phrase "big ask" reminds me of the much-blogged-about "another think." My first impression is that

    "I have to ask … too big an ask."

    and

    "If you think … another think coming."

    show a similar kind of structure.

  8. Molly said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    Also in the computer industry (based in Silicon Valley, but at a company with offices worldwide) I can also attest to the specificity of ask as I hear it used. Most common situations to hear it:

    "Thank you for that general background, but can you tell me what exactly your asks are?"

    "Before we go into this meeting, we need to talk about our asks so we don't look unprepared."

    I also know well "Do the needful," although I've only heard it from folks from India (and US folks using it ironically and/or mockingly about Indian customers)

  9. Zeborah said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

    "an ask", "my ask" etc is new to me, but as a New Zealander I had no idea "a big ask" was regional, so kept wondering as I read the blog post when you were going to get to it. :-) To me it's mildly colloquial but not slangy — I wouldn't be surprised to hear it in speeches from politicians or even businessfolk — and if it originated in the arena of sports it's long since escaped.

    @HP: "If you think X you've got another think coming" is a familiar idiom, but I can't think of any idiom with anything like "I have to ask [...] too big an ask." From gut instinct (for what that's worth…) the root idiom is "That's a big ask," and the rest derives from there.

  10. jaap said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:05 am

    The UK snooker commentator John Virgo use the expression "It's a big ask" a lot. He's from Lancashire.

  11. Alan Walker said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:39 am

    In the Australian usage, the qualifying adjective can also denote a small quantity:

    "The contentment of this Colombian is truly a small ask; some china, a stand of bougainvillea and someone to do the tax."

    (photo caption in the Melbourne Age, 18 December 2005)

    And the adjective can be omitted entirely, in which case "big" is implied:

    "If you’ve got a busy day and have to race out and produce a sperm specimen rather than have a sandwich and read the paper, it’s an ask."

    (quote from IVF director Gab Kovacs, Melbourne Age, 5 March 2005)

    There are some other examples in an article I wrote for Ozwords, April 2006 edition, page 6, http://www.anu.edu.au/andc/pubs/ozwords/pdfs/ozwords_april06.pdf.

  12. Bill Tucker said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:49 am

    I remember one day 25 years ago in India I was trying to ask other travelers in the train station for some information, and one of them finally suggested that I "go to the information window and have an ask".

  13. ajay said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 6:15 am

    A natural innovation in Old English would have been to create a noun directly from the verb ask (or its pre-OE forebear); that would have been a useful thing to have, and so it happened. Yes, a nouning of a verb.

    What about "asking" as in "free for the asking"?

  14. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 7:14 am

    I'm no fan of Tim Limoncelli's locution "but business people are evolving our language." I similarly disliked "growing the business" but I suppose I'm getting used to these developments.

  15. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    Did anyone else find Zwicky's use of "cite" as a noun in this article a bit offsetting, especially considering the context? When I first ran across it, I figured he had chosen this usage intentionally because it was (or seems to me) a clear example of what he was talking about. But then it came up again and again without comment.

    To my hearing, one would cite (v) a citation (n). But on the other hand, I've had no problem with people substituting "quote" for "quotation." Odd, that. Has "cite" been pretty well established as a noun? Maybe moreso than "ask"?

  16. language hat said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    Yes, "cite" as a noun is very common; the OED takes it back to 1957. I suspect you've seen it before without noticing it.

  17. Peter said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 10:21 am

    I've heard 'big ask' a lot recently, and although it strikes my ear strangely, it seems reasonable. 'I made my ask of' on the other hand, seems a needlessly lengthened version of 'I asked'. If it adds a new shade of emphasis unobtainable by other means, it's too subtle for me.

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    To Andy Hollandbeck, and amplifying a little on language hat's comment: this use of "cite" is in common use by lexicographers and others searching corpora for citations; "two cites" has appeared on Language Log here (from me) and here (from Mark Liberman), and searches for "cite" in other contexts would undoubtedly turn up many more on Language Log. It is widely used on the American Dialect Society mailing list, which is probably where I picked it up, and on the Eggcorn Data Base.

    (The noun "cite" is in NOAD2 but not AHD4.)

    As with the noun "ask" (vs. "request"), the noun "cite" has advantages over the alternatives ("citation" and "quotation"/"quote"), in that it is more specific that they are and ties the word to a particular context (in this case, lexicography). And of course it's shorter.

    MWDEU has a nice entry for the noun "quote", by the way, which has been around since at least 1888 and has been strongly disapproved of by some commentators, though MWDEU notes that it "is now widely used in standard if mostly casual writing".

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    Adrian Bailey: "I'm no fan of T[o]m Limoncelli's locution "but business people are evolving our language." I similarly disliked "growing the business" but I suppose I'm getting used to these developments."

    I pretty sure Tom's use of causative "evolve" was tongue in cheek, in fact an allusion to "growing the business".

  20. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 11:08 am

    To Alan Walker: I suspected that both of these developments — Adj + "ask" with small-quantity adjectives and unmodified "ask" with large quantity implied — might have occurred. The first is an extension of the older pattern, the second a truncation of an ordinary sort. Nice examples of small-scale changes in progress.

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    Was Tom's use of "nounify" (vs. "nominalize" or "substantivize") also tongue-in-cheek? I took a peek at the site, and didn't see much of a sense of humor.
    What is it about zero derivation that gives people like Tom such "huge amounts of pain"?

  22. anomrabbit said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 11:48 am

    I first heard "ask" as a noun a few years ago. I was at a political training seminar, so I assumed that it was just another buzzword. I have heard and seen it around more often now, though. It seems to have a context separate from "request": an "ask" is like a "demand" (which is too forward and blunt) in that it must be fulfilled while a "request" is dependent on the requestee.

  23. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    To Coby Lubliner: on "nounify", I'm not really sure. Tom will have to speak for himself.

    As for the antipathy to zero derivation, I've always assumed that there were two sources: a general antipathy to innovations (in particular, "neologisms"), and an antipathy to jargon, vogue words, and other words associated with particular social groups (rather than being in general use). Clearly, this is a big topic

  24. Jillian said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    The first time I noticed ask being used as a noun was on the HBO show Oz, where context led me to believe it was being used as prison slang for a favor rather than a simple request.

  25. mollymooly said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    I have definitely heard "a big ask" in Ireland from rugby commentators, many of whom have experience in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
    I wonder whether zero-derivation is becoming more popular (if at all) as a result of the increase in brief quick messages like IRC, texting and blog posts, where an extra -ation takes too long to type. (This is a neutral observation, not an end-of-civilisation complaint.)

  26. Tom Limoncelli said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    [[I took a peek at the site, and didn't see much of a sense of humor.]]

    What? My book on system administration is the funniest system administration textbook available! Where else can you find advice about building computer networks interspersed with advice on how to stop your dishwasher from leaving spots on the glassware? What other technical book would suggest that if something hurts, stop "doing that". Were you looking at http://www.everythingsysadmin.com?

    My latest book is nothing but humor (www.rfc-humor.com).

  27. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 9:30 am

    And in Old English it really meant "request" and not "question"? I'd find that surprising.

  28. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 10:13 am

    To David Marjanović: the glosses the OED gives are "asking, inquiry; thing asked, request". Insofar as I can piece out the OE examples (which is not very far), 'request' is more likely than 'question', but it's hard to tell, since there's no context for the cites.

    The OED is not much as a research tool. Mostly it just serves as a pointer to places to look and things to look at. The actual research would involve searching the texts and interpreting the examples in their linguistic and cultural context — something I don't have the resources or competence to do.

  29. Catanea said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    I'm going to leap in here, as a native hear-er, just to say that the first hearing that occurred to me was an analogy to "my bad" which I understand to have originated in Joss Whedon's idiolect. I can take these things "on board" pretty quickly, but I don't necessarily intuit their origins correctly. If that is of any use to researchers. [I'm American-born, have lived in Catalonia for the last 25 years with an English husband, a Catalan daughter, and no television. And almost no "ex pat" friends, whatever that means.] If any of that sheds any light.

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    Catanea: "'m going to leap in here, as a native hear-er, just to say that the first hearing that occurred to me was an analogy to "my bad" which I understand to have originated in Joss Whedon's idiolect."

    Not much to build an analogy on here. Both are nounings, but "my ask" is based on a verb, and "my bad" on an adjective, and the semantics of the nounings aren't at all parallel.

    We've had discussions of "my bad" 'my fault' on the ADS mailing list several times. Joss Whedon has nothing to do with its origin, though Buffy might have been a vector for the diffusion of the expression to speakers who didn't have it before, and to contexts outside what seems to be its original context, namely in playing sports (especially basketball). It's at least 30-40 years old in sports use, and might have been first used by African American men.

  31. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    "My bad" has also come up on Language Log a few times, such as this post by Mark Liberman that reproduces OED citations back to 1986, indicating an origin in pick-up basketball. See also this post, and this one.

  32. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

    A Google search under "all about the ask" turns up several random citations, including this one about questioning jurors:

    "There's another point that pulls it all together, a critical factor — maybe the critical factor — in juror disqualification. Over and over, cases seem to turn not on what the juror actually said or did, but instead on how extensively the trial judge questions, or allows questioning of, the juror and the rest of the panel. To borrow a phrase from fundraising circles, it's all about The Ask." — from http://jurylaw.typepad.com/deliberations/2007/06/about_the_ask.html

    "It’s really all about the ask. That Florida checkout clerk is trained NOT to ask the shopper to donate a buck to a Boston hospital. Instead they ask: "Would you like to donate a dollar to help a sick child." Who can say no to that?" — from http://selfishgiving.com/cause-marketing-in-action/countdown-to-halloween-town-mobile-madness

    "Of course, the #1 Fundraising Secret to making this year your best year is: Ask.
    I continued to be amazed at how easy it is to get bogged down in non-asking activities. We may hide behind terms like “preparing” for an ask or “following up” after an ask. But preparing and following up won’t bring in the money.
    In my seminars and upcoming book, I teach that there are really only three forms of fundraising communication:
    Cultivation
    Asking
    Stewardship
    Cultivation and stewardship are vital. But they’re nothing without asking. To just cultivate and steward would be like eating an Oreo cookie without the filling. Yuck." — from http://fundraisingcoach.com/blog/2007/08/14/fundraising-secret-1/

    The times I hear "ask" as a noun, it is almost always in relation to fundraising, and the phrase "It's all about the ask" seems to be used a lot.

  33. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    The example "my ask for reviewers" actually sounded perfectly natural to me, but that was probably just because my brain was starting to glaze over by that point. However, it might also be because of the implied academic context. Nobody's mentioned yet that the verb "talk" is frequently used in an academic setting as a noun meaning "speech" or "presentation", as in, "Are you going to Adams' talk on linguistics today?" The use of "ask" as a noun in this one context might be influenced by the existing use of "talk".

  34. Ann said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    Yeah – I remember being briefed on a tech project in the 90s, and wondering why this (rather large) South African client kept insisting that they understood that their arse was big!
    Lesson: stay away from this term if you speak 'Seffrikan'.

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