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.