"Ask" has been used as a noun since Old English, but the saying "It's a big ask," is much, much newer.
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a listener named Luana. She wrote,
“My husband works in sales, and the phrase ‘The ask is…' is frequently used.
It's a new way of saying ‘The request is….' I'm curious about the origins of this, and if ‘ask’ can be used as a noun.
'Ask' as a Noun
What was especially interesting, was that I haven’t heard this question before, but I also did a radio interview that week and someone from Ohio asked a similar question, and then I saw someone from the ACLU tweeting that a lawyer from the Department of Justice said it’s “a lot to ask” of the government to absorb the cost of reunifying the families it tore apart, but then he looked as his notes revised the tweet saying the lawyer actually didn’t say “It’s a lot to ask,” he said “It’s a huge ask,” so in addition to the people calling and writing about using “ask” as a noun, I saw this other instance of a federal lawyer using “ask” as a noun too—all in one week.
But like so many things that seem new once you start noticing them, when I started doing research, using “ask” as a noun turned out to be about as old as you can get.
The Oxford English Dictionary shows that “ask” has been used as a noun since Old English. The word “request” didn’t even show up until the mid-1300s. It came to English from Old French like so many words during that time.
'A Big Ask'
The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the phrase “big ask” and says it originated in Australia.
The more specific phrase like the one the lawyer used—it’s a big ask—is more recent. The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the phrase “big ask” and says it originated in Australia. The first citation is from 1987.
The OED claims that the phrase “big ask” is usually used in sports contexts—for example, in this sentence the dictionary cites from “Rugby World”: “It was a huge ask of my players, but their attitude throughout the week prior to the game was superb”—but my personal experience and research tell me that at least in the United States, “the ask” is also used to describe asking for money—one fundraiser might ask another “How did the ask go?” or give advice “You need to get to the ask faster.” And it can also just mean a significant or difficult request, as in “I know it’s a big ask for you to pick me up at the airport at 4:00 AM, but can you do it?” And in some cases, it’s even just as a synonym of “request.” For example in this recent quotation from Michelle Poler of Hello Fears, a movement that “aims to make the world a braver place”: She said, “My ask is simple — choose growth over comfort.” And here’s another one from the “Recode Media with Peter Kafka” podcast: The host says, “My ask to you is that you tell someone else about this show.”
'The Bid' and 'the Ask'
In a more specialized sense, if you’ve ever bought stocks, you might remember seeing prices listed as the bid and the ask—“the ask” being the asking price, the price you pay when you buy the stock. (The OED has the first use of this sense in 1874.)
Publications Using 'Ask' as a Noun
In a Google Ngram search, the phrases “big ask” and “huge ask” rarely appear in the text of published books. (You do see what looks like increasing usage for the search “big ask,” but it turns out to be sentences that end with “big” butting up against new sentences that start with “Ask.”)
There have been at least a few books published with variations on the title “A Big Ask.” I found three from Australian or British authors and two from American authors. The Australian books seem to be a bit older, which fits with the idea that the phrase originated there and is making its way to Britain and the United States.
So to sum up, it’s not new at all to use “ask” as a noun, but the phrases “it’s a big ask” and “it’s a huge ask” are relatively new. They didn’t emerge yesterday, but they did start in Australia about 30 years ago and have taken some time to gain popularity in the United States. Still, the Language Log had a post way back in 2004 about John Kerry using the phrase during his presidential campaign, so it’s hard to call it new. It may sound a bit like jargon or a bit flippant to some listeners or readers, but lawyers use it, presidential candidates use it, authors use it, and as Luana’s husband has proven, people in business use it. It’s completely standard English.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”