August 07, 2004

It's a big ask

There are just some days when I wonder whether I'm a native English speaker.

On NPR's All Things Considered yesterday, Mara Liasson reported from the Kerry campaign in Missouri. There are a few clips in the report from recent speeches by Kerry; here's the part from one of those clips that made me do a double-take:

I'm asking you to trust our nation, our history, the world, your families, in my hands. And I understand that it's a big ask. And it's a tough judgment you have to make.

After a little Googling (14,100 hits for {"big ask"}), I'm pretty confident this is another case of mere variation and that there are people out there who use this phrase in the way I (and others? a little help here?) would use "big thing to ask".

Update: Two Three Four Five people have written with clarification on "big ask".

Jonathan Lundell writes:
The first Google hit I got for "big ask" (link) is the meaning that I think of first as well. "The ask" is the act of actually asking for money when one is fundraising. It might be at an event with entertainment, food, whatever, but at some point somebody's responsible for the ask.
Maybe Kerry's already beginning to confuse his stump-speaking with his fundraising?

Duncan Mak writes:
I don't think it's that uncommon to use the word 'ask' as a noun, I came across this listing of "Microsoft vocabulary" recently, and "ask" is the first word listed. I don't think it is a Microsoft-only usage, as I've heard it used by other people (in other industries) as well. (link)
The relevant entry from this page is:
A requirement or request that something happen.
Example: The Speedo team has an ask that we add red dancing baboons to our product's splash screen.
Example: What are the Speedo team's asks?
Ray Girvan writes:
I wonder if any others find the term conjures up rather a bizarre image? Part of my family is Scottish, and to me, "ask" as a noun is a newt. (link)

Liz Ditz writes:
It is a turn of phrase from fundraising or philanthropy, which became ubiquitous about 5-10 years ago, 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.

From someone who prefers not to be identified:
01 Apr 1999: [Australian colleague asking me for a favour] said "I know it's a big ask" [this is the first time I heard it]

30 Sep 1999: Alf in "Home and Away" [Australian soap opera]: "it's too big an ask",

19 Jan 2003: RTE News [Irish TV station]: Munster having to beat Gloucester to progress in the European Cup [rugby]: "a huge ask"

My impression is that the use of a verb as a noun makes the speaker feel more dynamic about themselves and the situation than if they said "it's a lot to ask". I wouldn't be surprised if "big ask" took its place alongside similarly-motivated corporate babble like "going forward" or "touch base" but I haven't heard it shouted into mobile phones yet.
Let's hope we never do.

Stephen Ritcey writes:
I work for an electrical utility. I stumbled onto your recent summary of the state of ask-as-noun via a Google search provoked by the following, found in an internal email message:
[We] must have your approval to move forward so please respond to the ask as instructed.
Clearly the phrase has already migrated to business-speak.

Alan Walker writes:
I was researching the phrase "a big ask" for my Australian English word game when I came across your posting about it on the Language Log website.

The phrase is listed as an Australian one, meaning a difficult target, in "A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms", G A Wilkes, Fourth Edition 1996, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Wilkes gives two Australian quotes illustrating the evolution and usage of the expression:

From 1985: "He had set an ask of $17,990, which was really stretching things."

From 1989: "A premiership, a State of Origin jumper and belting Canterbury at Penrith Park. Three big asks, but if they all happen, won't the phone be ringing off the hook then."

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 7, 2004 09:41 PM