“Ask,” noun, a request. Usage note: Upon being asked by an unreasonable client, at say 5 p.m., for 23 hours worth of work to be delivered at 9 a.m. the next morning, an investment banker might say to the “deal team,” “Wow, that’s a really big ask.” This simple example, that is, the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, beautifully exposes the pathology and just plain weirdness of finance lingo and the workaholics who embrace it.
According to Constant Agony, the Jesse Jackson Professor of Linguistics at State Normal School for Women at Harrisonburg, who has served as a a translator in countless insider trading cases:
If an outgoing three-year-old-child were to accost you in a bakery and tell you that he’d just eaten four chocolate cupcakes and if you were to reply, “Wow, you made a really big eat,” the young man would probably take it in stride; he might even beam with pride and know that he’d found a kindred spirit. If the young man’s parents were within earshot, however, they might note your strange use of the word “eat” and interpret your response differently: 1) they might appreciate you speaking to the child on his level, that is, with baby talk; 2) they might think that English isn’t your native language but that you’re a good sport; or 3) they might think you’re a nut/pervert. Finance types have a fetish for turning verbs into nouns, “ask” is one, so is “spend” for expenditure. A banker might say, “SG&A spend went up this quarter.” They’re nothing if not flexible with jargon, so they go the other way too: “Leverage” gets noun/verb double-duty, and “incentive” becomes “incentivize” or the even more hideous verb “incent.” The problem is that when you indulge in this gibberish at work, there’s no three-year-old next to you in the cupcake line to smile at you and maybe drool in approval. You come across like a jackass to everyone but the few who are sophomoric enough to think it’s cool to talk in financespeak. Sure, in some cases maybe there’s a specific explanation, albeit jejune, for why Wall Streeters coin a silly expression. Bankers love to use “delta” to mean “change in a variable” because deep down they wish they were on the trading floor where “delta hedging” is a common term. And “EBITDA” is a means to an end: it looks better than cash flow from operations. But most of the lingo falls in the same category as “ask,” fabricated to make a job seem a lot more exciting, action-oriented, and secretive than it ever could be.
It would be unpleasant enough if only bankers and the like used “ask” as a noun. Unfortunately, like the contents of a clogged toilet that’s just been flushed, the term appears to be on the move: Have a look at yesterday’s miserably titled Bloomberg.com article, The 5 Big Asks in President Obama’s Aspirational, Unpassable, $4 Trillion Budget. If the byline is any indication, it took three authors to come up with this title. Perhaps this brain trust was having a little fun, the joke being that there’s some humor in using a ridiculous word in an article about the president’s ridiculous budget. But before they butcher the English language, or sound like a cupcake-gorging three-year-old or an unctuous banker, couldn’t they have settled for the word “proposals”? That way, they’d be doing their part to ensure that ask-as-a-noun doesn’t spread like crap oozing under the bathroom door.