“Big ask”

This line appeared in a December 2018 New York Times review of the Nicole Kidman movie Destroyer: “That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies. If Bell [the Kidman character] were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask.”

That “ask” is a shift of the word from verb to noun, meaning, basically, “request.” (“Request” started as a noun in about 1400 and was being used as a verb no later than 100 years later.) The OED cites uses of noun “ask” back to the 13th century, including this from a 1656 Bible translation: “God saith concerning Christ, thou art my Son, there presently followeth an Ask of me and I will give thee.” The dictionary says it is now “somewhat rare,” with three exceptions. The first is in bridge and whist, where it means “A play or bid having the primary purpose of eliciting information about a partner’s hand.” (“Who has not suffered when he has played correctly second hand..from his partner assuming that there has been an ask for trumps?” Westminster Papers, 1872.) The second is in finance, where it means “asking price.” And the third is when it’s modified by an adjective like “big,” “huge,” or “impossible, as in the Times quote above.

I would tend to disagree with the last category. That is, I accept that the current popularity of “ask” as a noun started with “big ask,” as we’ll see, but I think it’s very much out there by itself, as are such similar nouns as “get,” “reveal,” and “fail.” See the title of a 2017 book about fundraising by Laura Fredericks, The Ask: For Business, For Philanthropy, For Everyday Living. So I would recommend including “big ask” citations in the main definition.

As I say, the recent surge in “ask”-as-noun started with “big ask,” and it started in Australian sport(s). The OED has a 1987 quote from the Sydney Morning Herald, the quotation marks indicating a fairly recent coinage: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer..that four pounds is ‘a big ask’.”

I believe I can antedate that. The Google Books database has a “big ask” from what appears to be a short story in the Australian journal The Bulletin, vol. 97, 1975. “A big ask, though. They wanted a grand. Anyway I got two spot bail and the case is still swingin’.”

The phrase stayed in Australia for a while. Writing on the American Dialect Society listserv, Peter Reitan reported checking the newspapers.com database and finding that “every single hit from 1988 through 2006 is either from an Australian newspaper, or quotes a native Australian, typically athletes.”

Some American uses in that period can be found elsewhere. The (California) Orange County Register, August 29, 1993, referring to a program at the University of California, Irvine, reported: “[The American-born director] bundled seven projects into one Big Ask, for a regional alliance called Defense Photonics Medical Consortium.”

A chart showing frequency of “big ask” in American newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis database shows growth that’s gradual in the decade of the 2000s, and dramatic in the 2010s.

screen shot 2019-01-21 at 8.38.19 am

Over in the U.K., the phrase was in circulation no later than 2006, when Friends of the Earth started a “Big Ask” campaign to fight climate change.

And someone posted this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2012:

Misused by stupid British soccer commentators as a substitute for job, task, or assignment.

“He has to stop Messi from scoring tonight: that’s a big ask.”

 

3 responses to ““Big ask”

  1. See also the 2010 Sam Lipsyte novel, The Ask.

  2. I too associate it with football commentators. In that context it means an expectation; a big ask means expecting a lot, implying perhaps too much. There’s an inbuilt doubt about how realistic an expectation it is.

  3. Another Australian usage would be ”That’s bit of an ask” meaning that it is a difficult request. Thus in Oz you don’t need to qualify ”ask” with ”big”or any other word.

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