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Friday, July 6, 2012

Is "ask" a noun?

A friend of mine mentioned to me recently that he had just heard the word "ask" used as a noun (a phenomenon he found distasteful). This usage is particularly popular amongst fundraisers, who butter up their prospects before going for the "ask" for money. 

But should we object to the usage? And how new is it? Well, you may be shocked to learn that "ask" has been a noun for quite some time... a millennium, in fact! So we can't object to it on grounds of newness (even if that were a valid objection to usages, which it isn't).  

Can we object to it on the grounds that verbs shouldn't be used as nouns? Well, only if you want, on the same grounds, to stop using nouns like "take" (as in "they counted the take"), "walk" and "run" ("go for a walk/run"), "stretch", "hold", and many other nouns that started out life as verbs. Words can shift their function, and there is no rule against this. In fact, it is one of the great flexibilities of language. For more on the reverse phenomenon, "nouns being used as verbs", please click here.

While we're on the subject of the word "ask", just how awful are those people who pronounce it "ax"? 

In Old English, the word was áscian. This should have ended up as "ash" in modern English, following the same pattern that transformed Old English  æsce into "ash" (the tree), and wæsc(e)an into "wash". But because metathesis (the inverting of the order of consonants) was quite common in Old English, an "aks" variant had arisen even before the Normans arrived, a form which survived down to nearly 1600 as the regular literary form. This still survives in some dialects of English, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. As with all such things, it is just an accident of history that we now use the "ask" form instead of the "ax" one. 

For more on metathesis, click here. 

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  1. OK I surrender, but I really find the sound of "ask" as a noun irritating! :-)

  2. Ask has recently become a watered-down version of demand, for polite activists.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.