AN ASK, A QUESTION, A REQUEST

“Put it in my ask,” the kids say these days. On social media and sharing sites like Tumblr, the comment submission box is an “ask box,” and people will use that phrasing with the word “ask” as a noun, or rather, as an adjective but while dropping the actual noun in the phrase. The other day, a faculty member asked me what my “ask” is for a meeting I have set up with a university administrator. I did not understand the question at first–“what is your ask?”–and had to ask her to explain what she meant. I am not used to “ask” as a noun, and at the time, it struck me as something that has seeped into common parlance from more corporate language practices. Later, I remembered that social media sites sometimes use the word similarly, but I was still curious about how widespread the use of the word in that manner is.

I looked in the online Oxford English Dictionary, as any good literature scholar would, and found that the noun form of “ask” indeed goes back as far as the year 1000 in older forms of English. I then googled “ask as a noun” and came across a question with answers at a site for English language & usage, which offers links to a couple of Language Log blog posts about the issue. It turns out that there is a strong correlation with the use of ask as a noun with technology company speak. I agree with the comments in the English language & usage post that notes the awkwardness of the usage when “question” or “request” would work just as well and seem less contrived. What is your question? What is your request?

Some more googling of “an ask” also reveals that the use is widespread in political fundraising campaigns, and that connection begins to explain some of the ways that the term might be deliberately awkward or seemingly innovative in order to make the idea of requesting money for political campaigns less direct. As fond as I am of linguistic play (in poetry and literature more generally), I find this kind of slippery use of language troubling. In my mind, it is more akin to the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 than to the probing language of a poet like Myung Mi Kim whose unconventional use of words explores the breakdown of meaning and the sedimented layers of (colonial) power in language.

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