What is an “Ask?”
Now, I’m not exactly known as a language nit-picker. I realize that languages evolve over time, and that which was standard English speech a thousand years ago, say, in Chaucer’s time, is now nearly unrecognizable in today’s language. Technology advances, foreign population influxes and relocations, the miracles of modern transportation and communication, have all contributed to the “massaging” of language. It’s similar to waves pounding on a rocky shore, that will ultimately wear down those rocks and grind them into those fine particles that we call sand.
Another major influence on our speech can be credited to the American military’s presence in foreign lands. The average G.I. can butcher indigenous words and/or imbed them in their speech. Then they bring those words home and lo! We have new words to either enrich or corrupt our language, depending on how much of a purist one tends to be. But language change is also like the flow of lave from Mauna Loa. It may move slowly, but within its sphere of influence it is unstoppable. Here are a few such language imports for your amusement.
The term “head honcho” comes directly from Japanese, where the word “honcho” means boss, or head man. For years we used the word “sayonara” as an alternative to “goodbye, and again, it’s a pure Japanese import. A corrupted version of the Japanese word for suicide, “hara-kiri,” was heard as “harry carry” to the G.I.’s ear, and that became standard in our language for years. “Ojo-san,” a Japanese maiden, became a U.S. hit with its translation as “Joesan.” We still use a “kimono” as a housecoat and an “obi” as a sash.
During WW II, the ingenious mind of the American G.I. (a word that originally meant Government Issue), invented such terms as “SNAFU,” (Situation Normal, All F***ed Up), which was further refined by the G.I. in Vietnam, who invented “FUBAR,” the last three words of which are “beyond all recognition.” You’ll easily figure out the rest. Then in l950 we entered the “police action” in Korea. Out of necessity, some of us learned to eat their national dish, called “kim-chee.” Without refrigeration, the Koreans improvised this delicacy by burying it in pits during the bitter winters there. It was mainly cabbage, peppers, such other veggies as were available, and a special hot sauce that made it palatable (to them) when dug up, thawed, and consumed. I can’t think of a single G.I. who ever liked Kim-chee. It was the Korean equivalent of the Norwegians’ “ludefisk,” or cod fish preserved in lye and other things that only a Scandahoovian could eat. Anyway, the so-clever G.I. invented “deep kim-chee” as a term which roughly meant “deep doo-doo.” You can still hear that one from time to time, although some now say “deep kinchy.”
Language evolution is a marvelous manifestation of our human inventiveness, and I’m sure there have been many books written on the topic. In the Southwest we have entire dictionaries of “Tex-Mex,” the marvelous blend of Spanish and English as practiced by millions in our border regions. I’ll save that for another offering, but today I’d just like to observe a linguistic trend that’s becoming more common in the news media. For convenience, let’s call it “nouning verbs.” It’s nothing more than a ploy for turning a verb into a noun. It works the other way too, but I’ve been cautioned never to “verb nouns.” It causes professional linguists considerable angst, or maybe it simply “angsts them.” To which we might reply, “Angst this!”.
The first verb-cum-noun I heard, earlier this year, was from a TV commentator stating that a particular question was “a good ask.” This has already become common usage among journalists, and so morphs another noun-cum-verb into the dictionaries. Another one spoke of a book that was “an interesting read.” That one may also gain traction, as it’s a fairly innocuous corruption of a common noun. A bit of a harder reach is the nouning of a phrase which went, “They’re going to have a high-level confer about this.” These TV journalists have all become engines of language evolution.
All this stuff, and I’m barely scratching the surface, used to be like fingernails down the blackboard to this language practitioner. But I’d like to point out that the blackboard has gone the way of the buggy whip, so I have nothing left to grate my ears except what I always called “improper usage.” Like “like,” wouldn’t you think? Educated people now use “like” like punctuation, instead of the vocabulary they no longer possess. Do you think I like it? Like, what would you guess?
Like, George Thatcher