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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

ask (n.)

(2010’s | athletese? | “request,” “appeal”)

I still don’t know for sure, but it looks to me like “ask” first grew as a noun in Australia, as far back as the eighties, mainly in sports lingo. It may have happened earlier, it may have happened somewhere else, but by 1990 it was not hard to find the nominal “ask” in the antipodal press, often in the phrase “big ask” (which meant simply “a lot to ask”). In the U.S, it didn’t occur often before 2000, and it seems to have leached into the language over the next ten years through that eternal pursuit, fundraising. Political candidates, hospital executives, church ladies all must eventually “make the ask” of donors (put the bite on, we used to say irreverently). To this day, it turns up most in financial contexts; an ask generally involves money and is directed to an individual, though it could also be made of a charitable institution.

“Ask” is still used far more often as a verb, and that should remain true for a long time. But the noun is out there now, getting a bit more normal-sounding every year. It’s not very interesting semantically, simply filling space that once belonged to “request” or “appeal.” The noun tags along behind the wealth of phrases involving the verb, e.g., “a lot to ask,” “not too much to ask,” “asking price” (well, that’s a participle), or more picturesque entries like “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

So “the ask” really doesn’t add much to the language except another thorn in the side of traditionalists. That and opportunities for wordplay. Imagine a situation in which a fundraiser from one organization calls a donor shortly after one from another organization has gotten a sizable commitment. Wouldn’t that be a “tough ask to follow”? Top fundraiser for the year? The Askmaster! Medical research? “The Ask of the Red Death” (why not “The Ask of Amontillado”? ask the Poe-lovers). And it need not be reserved for filthy lucre. Students of antiquity may dwell quietly on the possibilities of Cleopatra’s ask, or Balaam’s. Then there’s “ask-backwards,” but that’s pushing things too far, trying to make an adjective out of it. Never fear, we’ll get there some day. Will “ask” beget “asky” (not to be confused with “ASCII”) — possible meanings: demanding, importunate, chancy — as “judge” has begotten “judgy”?

tell (n.)

(2010’s | athletese (poker) | “giveaway,” “telltale sign”)

This noun we owe to card players by general agreement. The OED cites a first instance from 1974, the second from 1998, both from commentary on poker. When the noun started to turn up shortly before 2010, writers often suggested that it was a poker term. It certainly seems plausible when you consider that poker players make their living by interpreting revealing behavior from their tablemates. A man named Mark Bouton published a book called “How to Spot Lies like the FBI” in 2010 in which the expression appeared often. The fact that a tell betrays that which one would rather hide causes it to be used to imply unsavory or deceptive behavior: lying, bluffing. Or a revelation of shame or vulnerability, as the gun shop owner who looks for “tells” suggesting that a buyer wants a gun in order to commit suicide. You can use another’s tell to help or harm them, but harm is more likely.

Apparently it’s no more than an abbreviation of “tell-tale sign.” I suppose it has the appeal of all shortenings, which is a higher meaning-to-syllable ratio. Like “ask,” “tell” portends little of semantic interest, but that doesn’t keep devotees of the latest vocabulary from embracing it. Then again, it may have a more capacious side, as in this from Gawker in 2007: “Restaurants, like poker players, have certain tells, minute signifiers that betray a whole constellation of facts.” Not one ho-hum revelation, but a peek into a universe of certainties deduced from one minor detail. Perhaps that’s a bit too Holmesian, but there is a sense in which “tell” opens up not just one surface inference but any number of supporting circumstances. A good tell reader will get more out of your tic or gesture than just the knowledge that you’re lying. (What are the words for the person issuing the tell and the person discerning it, anyway?)

I’ve done a couple of other words that have to do with unwelcome revelations: exposure, unpack. “Unpack” and “tell,” one a verb and the other a converted verb, are sort of opposite sides of the same coin, both related to getting underneath the obvious and extracting deeper significance. But in this case the unpacker can’t let on. Part of the point of noticing and correctly interpreting a tell is that the “teller” doesn’t know you’ve done it, doesn’t realize he has clued you in through an involuntary or unconscious movement. On the other hand, unpacking is normally a public process, in which the actor wants everyone to know what she’s doing. Maybe “tell” is really the opposite of “TMI,” betraying oneself with a small but highly significant hint rather than sheer garrulousness.


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