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Mind your language

Where ‘big ask’ came from, and why it still sounds barbaric

My husband was watching sport, so the cliché came as no surprise

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

‘That’s unnecessarily crude,’ said my husband, turning momentarily from the television and improving the shining minute by setting the whisky glass chinking. (He takes ice in it.)

‘What? A “big ask”? That’s not crude,’ I replied.

‘Oh, ask,’ he said in a sort of liquid-hoarse whisky-throaty voice seldom remarked upon by phoneticians.


He was watching sport, so the cliché came as no surprise to me. The sports pages are thick with it. Jeremain Lens, whoever he is, may be ‘an exciting player but proving it in the Premier League is a big ask’. For gee-gees, a big ask is graduating from winning a maiden to a good Group 2 race.

The bigness of the ask, of course, depends on the size of the task and the capacity of the askee. A big ask has now escaped from the sports pages, and our own Isabel Hardman, commenting on Liz Kendall’s troubles last week, varied the phrase: ‘It would be a huge ask for any candidate to move the established political convictions of a party electorate during a leadership contest, and she has clearly failed.’

Huge is a word that looks odd if you stare at it long enough. Like so many immigrants, it made its way without fanfare from France. Huge is a clipped form of Old French ahuge, with the same meaning and unknown origin. In English it has been spelled in a pleasing variety of awkward ways: hogge, hugge, howge, hughe, houdge and hoouge among them.

Anyway, a big ask sounds barbaric, if not crude, because a verb, ask, is used as a noun. The Oxford English Dictionary points to Australia for its origin, finding an example from Sydney in 1987, when the boxing trainer Johnny Lewis called four pounds’ weight ‘a big ask’ for his fighter.

The funny thing is that ask has been used as a noun, meaning ‘question’ or ‘request’, for more than 1,000 years, since the laws of Athelstan were written. Even the respectable Cavendish, the authority on different laws (those of whist), remarked in 1886, of some course of play: ‘When your three comes down in the next round, it is not an ask for trumps.’ And certainly not a big ask.


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