Verbal Energy

The vocabulary of standoff

Washington is at loggerheads and the GOP isn't sure of its 'ask.'

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I have to get something out of this: maybe just an understanding of what loggerheads really are.

The United States may be calming down to something like normal after the debt-ceiling debacle, which The Economist called the political equivalent of the Battle of the Somme: "[G]reat damage has been done, but barely any ground gained."

Things may be calming down because I had to go all the way to a second page of Google News results before I found an example of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill "at loggerheads."

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

It almost sounds like the name of a pub, doesn't it? "Meet me at Lagerheads." But in the 1580s, calling someone a "loggerhead" was a way of saying "stupid person" or "blockhead," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Logger was a dialectal term for "heavy block of wood," and head was a word meaning, well, "head."

During the next century, loggerhead had a number of meanings: a thick-headed iron tool, a kind of cannon shot, and a type of turtle. During the 1670s, loggerheads had come to refer to fighting or fisticuffs, though the dictionary isn't quite clear on the idea behind it: "[P]erhaps it suggests the heavy tools used as weapons." The phrase at loggerheads, meaning, more genteelly perhaps, "in disagreement," rather than "throwing punches," likewise dates back to the 1670s.

Maybe there's comfort to be taken in the idea that being "at loggerheads" at least implies some engagement rather than complete standoff, but how much?

Meanwhile, one strong contender to embody the original 1580s sense of loggerhead might be the sophomore-class GOP representative from Indiana who told an interviewer, as the "defund 'Obamacare' " call was failing to find resonance and the curious public was wondering just what the Republican goal was: "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

In other words, what was the Republican "ask" going to be? And beyond that, how do we feel about "ask" as a noun? It's not a usage that most of the main online dictionaries seem to recognize. But fundraisers talk about the importance of getting "the ask" right in a solicitation letter to donors. Software or Web developers speak of their clients' "asks," or requirements: What does the program or website need to do?

"The Republican ask" was a phrase much heard in the October crisis. Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney, for instance, told Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, "I think it's possible ... that you see something like an actual strategy or potential path towards victory coming out of this. If it's not going to be Obamacare, I hope the Republican ask will be something like eliminating a corporate welfare subsidy Obama likes...."

Curmudgeons may point out that the word Mr. Carney needed was demand. Ah, but "ask" sounds so much gentler, doesn't it? It's a little more forceful than "request" – such is the power of a monosyllable – but still guileless: "Just asking."

Ask comes from the Old English ascian, meaning to ask, call for an answer, or make a request. It was also used as a noun a millennium or so ago – before French-derived words like request and demand arrived in the language. And so now "the ask" is back in vogue, in some quarters at least.

What will the GOP "ask" be in three months? Meet me at loggerheads, and maybe we'll find out.

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