Short shot #7: ask and want

From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky:

I just heard somebody say, into his phone on a business conversation about fees and stuff “The way it’s structured you’ll have some ask on wants.”

This has two nounings (of verbs) in a short space, which is pretty dense. The first, ask, is one I’ve posted about on Language Log, though the usage here is not quite like the ones I posted about. The second, want, is (in the sense here) of some age in English.

Putting aside some specialized uses, the examples I gave earlier were of possessive + ask (“my ask”, “your ask”, etc.) and of a + quantity modifier + ask (primarily with the modifier big). [Before you forge ahead and post comments about your uses of ask or your reactions to other people’s uses, please look at the Language Log posting.]

What we have in some ask of wants is an extension of the second use, to take in a quantity modifier not involving the indefinite article a. Here’s another one with some; probably there are other extensions from the a big ask pattern:

Hopefully the weather will be kind this weekend [for the Cholmendeley Pageant of Power] – I’ll be there on Sat on the AM stand. Being there before 08.00 is some ask on a Saturday (or Sunday) morning! (link)

The noun want is much more complicated. Noun uses of want go way back in English, originally having to do with the lack of something, but eventually extending to senses related to other uses of the verb want: from the 16th century on, a family of senses OED2 characterizes as involving something needed or required; a requirement or desideratum (frequently in the plural in these senses); and, eventually, something one wishes to have (as opposed to what one needs or requires), the sense in some ask on wants above. Some relatively recent cites:

1950 Sport 24-30 Mar. 19/4 (Advt.), Clubs..can use our national net-work of experts to provide grounds, fixtures, insurance, fund-raisers and all club wants.

1955 W. J. BATE Achievement of Samuel Johnson (1978) ii. 70 General wishes have to localize themselves into definite wants.

1983 J. BARZUN Stroll with W. James 280 He did not fall into the trap of supposing that a child’s needs are the same as his wants.

Many of the examples have plurals (as EDZ’s example did), and parallelism (wishes … wants, needs … wants) seems to facilitate the pattern, though it’s absent in EDZ’s example.

2 Responses to “Short shot #7: ask and want”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    There is another specialised nouned use of “ask” not mentioned in your LL piece or comments. In limited-overs cricket, the rate at which runs need to be scored by a team batting second to meet the target set is typically called the asking rate but sometimes also just “the ask”. This is probably influenced by the Australian-origin sporting use that you mention there, “a big ask”, but it’s more specific. You can find it used on the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and cricket website Cricinfo, for example. Thus teams can “fall behind the ask”, “stay ahead of the ask”, “catch up with the ask” and so on.

  2. Ian Preston Says:

    Just to continue, coincidentally, with the cricket theme of my comment above, I think I just heard a commentator use the phrase “That’s an ask” with more or less the opposite of the sense that you discuss here and in the LL post. Usually I would take such a phrase to indicate that the request in question was a long shot; in this instance, given the context and the excited tone, I can only think he must have been using it to mean that the request was worth making because unlikely to be refused. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this use before. (To be specific, this was Mark Nicholas commenting on five on the stumping appeal against Marcus North on the last day of the 2009 Ashes series: “That’s an ask, that’s an ask and that’s an out.”)

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