a [adjective] ask

It's been claimed that coincidences are the product of heightened attention to a particular thing or experience, and heightened attention is probably to blame for most word-coincidences. For instance, one day when I was (BrE) at university/(AmE) in college, I received a letter from my Irish (AmE) penpal/(BrE) pen friend, in which she related that she'd been on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday in Majorca (and it was a severe disappointment). I had to look up Majorca, since I'd never heard of it before. Later in the day, I went to my avant garde film class and saw Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or, in which people run around shouting "The Majorcans are coming! The Majorcans are coming!" (Actually, it was the subtitles that were shouting something like that.) Now, had I really never heard the word Majorca before that day (and thus it was eerily strange to hear it from two unrelated sources), or had I just never noticed it before that day? I'll never know. But I was reminded of this experience when I received an e-mail from reader Tim yesterday.

Prior to receiving his e-mail, I'd been reading the Times Higher Education Supplement (as you do), in which there was an article about UK universities trying to emulate US universities in their fundraising successes. (A very popular discussion in UK higher ed these days--which, frustratingly, usually ignores the fact that the tax incentives for charitable giving are much better in the US than the UK.) The title of the article included the phrase the big ask, and later in the article it refers to "the soliciation--or ask (in US fundraising parlance)" (that "quotation" was from memory--but I think it captures what was said). So, there we have the THES seeming to claim that using ask in this way (as a noun) is an Americanism. The Lynneguist in me thinks: "Bloggable!"

THEN comes the e-mail from American Tim, in which he asks about "BrE" a tough ask, which he'd just read or heard. So, we've got a British newspaper claiming that nominal (=noun) ask is AmE, and an AmE speaker assuming that it's BrE.

THEN, I'm having my Thursday-nightly pizza with my BrE-speaking girlfriends. The Poet, speaking about some emotional trade-offs says, "That's an incredibly huge ask." I thank her for using the word I've been thinking about, and she says "It's certainly not something I heard when growing up. It has a definite foreignness about it" (again--more of a paraphrase than a quotation!).

So, what nationality is nominal ask? Drum roll, please! It's Australian! And not the first time that BrE and AmE speakers have mis-attributed an AusE phrase--although last time the BrE and AmE speakers (myself included!) were all to eager to claim an AusE expression as their own (see back here, but make sure to read the comments to get the whole story).

This is what the OED (in its 2005 draft entry for the 3rd edition) has to say about it:
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 s.v.
Now, the THES article could not have been the first time I'd seen/heard ask, but it was the first time I'd really noticed it. But three times from unrelated sources in a 26-hour period? I think we can claim it as a weird coincidence, can't we?


  1. Is it purely a coincidence that in a post on misattribution to American English or British English you have this?

    she related that she'd been on (BrE) vacation/(AmE) holiday in Majorca

  2. Cors it is Australian. We could have told you that. All you had to do was ask.


  3. Yes, you'll hear "a big ask" and its variants all the time here in Oz, in both its original sporting context (it remains annoyingly popular with Aussie Rules/rugby league TV commentators) and figuratively as well. It's funny: unlike a lot of AusE words/phrases whose provenance isn't immediately obvious even to us Aussies, "big ask" always had a real Australian ring to it (to me anyway) - so much so that I would have doubted anyone could be confused about its origins. But plainly, its identity hasn't travelled as well as the phrase itself has.

  4. Of course Australian ownership of the UK media can only ease the introduction of these colonial phrases.

  5. Thanks for the catch, bingley. Have corrected it! (I think I was having a crisis about whether to put BrE or AmE first.)

  6. Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) has a nice section on heightened attention (he calls it "mental tuning") in his book God's Debris, in the Chapter "Affirmations". It is an excellent quick read and is available free on-line (just give it a google).

    I'm having trouble thinking of how "a big ask" is used in sport(s). Could an Aus give an example?

  7. The phrase "big ask" has also become very popular as a business buzzword, or so say my office-bound informants. They all seem to think of it as a sport/sports metaphor (no shortage of those in the business buzzword portfolio).

    Someone who faces a "big ask" will soon be required to step up to the plate (even by some BrE speakers who presumably have some non-baseball interpretation of the latter).

  8. Ginger Yellow, who often comments here, sent me a comment by e-mail because Blogger wasn't cooperating. GY says:

    "It's a fairly common usage in Britain now, at least among young people, even if it was originally Australian. I also think you might be misreading the THES piece, although without context it's hard to tell. I suspect the Australian/British phrase is being used in the first instance (quite possibly punningly). It doesn't literally mean a "solicitation" in that sense. Instead it means something more like "a considerable challenge", as in "You're asking a lot if you expect me to do that". This Guardian article on the subject uses (what I consider to be) the same pun.

    Language Log had a post on this a few years back, which seems to support the idea that the Australian and US usages are different."

    (back to Lynneguist)
    I think you're right that the AmE 'solicitation' meaning is different from the AusE meaning...as can be told partly by the fact that the AusE use really needs an adjective before it. (So, a bit sloppy on my part there.) The big ask in the title seems to be playing a bit on the AusE meaning. Now that I'm in the office, I can give you the exact quotations. The title says:

    How to get ready for the big ask

    In the article (the non-adjectived version of nominal ask), it says:

    Before making the "solicitation" or "ask" in US fundraising parlance, officials lay the groundwork meticulously.

    Using ask as a noun to mean 'request' is not an Americanism, really. There are examples in the OED going back a millennium. But it may have acquired a jargon-y flavo(u)r in the fundraising field that is more Amero-specific.

  9. The phenomenon you describe with Majorica apparently has a name, although it seems to be little used.
    The term is the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon. See this article for more info:

  10. AusE also has 'the big hot (or maybe it's 'the big dry,' or something similar [or quite different]) for the drought it's currently experiencing.

  11. Is a similar meaning of "get" as in "a good get" mainly or originally AmE? (Nevermind it being a variant of BrE "git".) It seems to also appear some in Australian sportswriting.

  12. I've never heard "ask" as a noun before. I will be on the lookout for it now.

  13. Nominal get goes back to the middle ages, at least. There's an Aus/NZ and AmE slang use that equals 'getaway' and a coal-mining use where good gets = an easily worked seam. (From OED, except the AmE, which is from Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

  14. I hear "big ask" all the time in the grant-writing department of the (American) non-profit I work for.

    My grandfather grew up on the Big Dry in Montana in the early 1900s; the creek was named in the 1870s or 80s. There's a Little Dry nearby, so called because it had water in it MORE, not less as you might expect.

  15. Canadian - now you've come accross it once, you'll probably hear it at least three times in the next 24 hours...

  16. An example of "big ask" in sports:


  17. Oops, that got truncated, sorry...


    (tinyurl link)

  18. One use of 'ask' that I am tired of hearing is the template to ask\be asking questions of something, as in 'to challenge'. It's especially prolific in sport journalism as in the Wallabies asked questions of the All Blacks defence.

    While we're on the subject of sport, here's an interesting past-time: when watching the sport section of the news, see how many unique ways the presenter can say team A beat team B. It's easy for smaller sports with only 4 or so games in a given weekend, but for larger sports the poor presenter has to find perhaps 10 synonyms.

    The big wet refers to the tropical wet season in northern Australia and also to a particularly devastating flood in 1974. The big dry has 40,000 or so results on google, 15,000 of those within Australia, almost all (of those I scanned) refer specifically to the current drought.

    Also, I think whoever it was that said it is right; 'ask' can only be nominalised in this way if it is preceded by an adjective.

  19. I've heard it without the adjective too, primarily in AmE business-speak (I work for an American company's U.K. office). In that sense ("What's the ask?") it's usually in reference to a customer's requirements, i.e. simply shorthand for "What are they asking for?"

  20. Drives me fucking crazy when I hear colleagues use "ask" as a noun. It's unnecessary and inane shorthand. It's like saying, "What's the drive to the restaurant?" instead of, "What's the way" or "What's the route?"

  21. As a New Zealander brought up speaking British English (and still preferring it) I thought usage with 'a (adjective) ask' were New Zealand dialect!
    (Although as New Zealand English becomes Americanised a process that's happening very rapidly) I expect that the bits of AusE we hear/use here will start to disappear.

  22. Wow, this post brought out a lot of reactions from me. In no particular order then:

    For some reason I hardly give a second thought to nouns becoming verbs, but the reverse floors me every time.

    The use of ask as a noun to mean a favor seems to parallel the usage of "request".

    The use of ask as a synonym of challenge seems to combine the questioning nature of ask as a verb with another word, "task".

    Finally,as an American, (s)he has a big ask (ahead), makes me smile as I say it with a short a, especially if the k is truncated, is shifted to a glottal stop or otherwise de-emphasized.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)