The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s a big ask

Q: When did “ask” become a noun? I first heard “a big ask” used at work for a difficult request. I considered it another annoying bit of industrialese, but I just heard a TV commentator use “a tough ask” this way. Is the usage now an acceptable idiom?

A: You’d better sit down. The word “ask” has been used as both a verb and a noun since Anglo-Saxon days.

The verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first showed up in Old English in Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s.

The noun appeared a couple of hundred years later in the dooms, or laws, of Athelstan, who was King of the Anglo Saxons (924-27) and the King of the English (927-39).

Since it first showed up in Old English, the noun has meant asking, an inquiry, a thing asked, or a request, according to Oxford.

Here’s an OED example in modern English from a Dec. 8, 1781, letter by the scholar Thomas Twining (whose grandfather founded the Twinings tea empire):

“I am not so unreasonable as to desire you to take notice of all the stuff I scribble, or answer all my asks.” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

And here’s an example from The Laws and Principles of Whist, an 1886 book written by “Cavendish” (the pen name of Henry Jones): “When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.”

The particular usage you ask about (in expressions like “a big ask” and “a tough ask”) isn’t quite as new as you seem to think—it’s been around since the 1980s.

The OED describes the usage as colloquial (more common in spoken than written English), and says it originated in Australia.

The dictionary defines this “ask” as meaning “something which is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a May 6, 1987, issue of the Sydney Morning Herald: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer, Johnny Lewis, that four pounds is ‘a big ask.’ ”

In a 2005 draft addition to its entry for the noun “ask,” the OED says the usage is chiefly heard in sports. But as you’ve observed, the expression has traveled far afield since then, geographically as well as linguistically.

A Jan. 30, 2014, editorial in the Guardian, for example, wonders whether Ukrainians will get a chance to “to make a free choice about their own government and national direction.”

“It is a big ask,” the paper says, “and none of the steps will be easy.”

And, according to the latest reports from Eastern Europe, it’s still a big ask.

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