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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The Birth of an Idiom

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The policy on gays in the military that the Department of Defense instituted in 1993 had four directives: Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass. In the very beginning it was occasionally referred to as the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policy, but the name quickly settled into the pithy two part, four word expression that we are all familiar with.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” fit perfectly into a common English idiom structure, one where two parallel clauses are reduced to their essence in order to make some kind of larger, meaningful statement about the way of the world. Some examples include:

no pain, no gain
first come, first served
like father, like son
here today, gone tomorrow
monkey see, monkey do
easy come, easy go
waste not, want not
so far, so good
been there, done that
another day, another dollar
mo’ money, mo’ problems

In fact, this is a common idiom structure in other languages as well. Chinese chengyu, for example, are four character expressions like “one day, thousand autumns” (meaning everything is changing so fast, that one day is like a 1,000 years).

The structure has a very satisfying balance to it. It lets you hold two ideas up for inspection in a compact linguistic thought space. When they are reconciled in that tiny space, a bigger, more complicated idea comes through. "Don’t ask, don’t tell" became a useful way to say “we will agree to not ask about it and will look the other way, if you agree not to tell us about it, making it inconveniently impossible for us to pretend we don’t know.” It has been two years since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed as a military policy, but it seems to have taken up residence in our storehouse of ready-made expressions for good, which is not surprising, considering how succinctly it captures a particular common set of circumstances.

Here are eight situations where the idiomatic meaning of the phrase has proved useful.

1. Someone is intentionally looking the other way so as not to be implicated.

As in this article, titled “Dominique Strauss-Kahn has a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Re: Whether a Woman is a Hooker or Not.”

Or in this article, asking Whole Foods to end its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about food potentially grown in sewage sludge.

2. Two actors are complicit in getting away with something because neither one is talking about it.

As in this article, claiming President Obama is not talking about jobs because the press is not asking him about jobs.

3. If you know, you’re not going to like it, so don’t ask.

This recipe for “Don’t ask, don’t tell” cookies includes sauerkraut as an ingredient. Shhh!

From a post about eating in China: “The other custom in China that many of us have trouble ‘stomaching’ is eating every part of an animal, or eating insects, or unusual creatures. This includes intestines, feet, eyes etc. If we are true to our ‘don’t ask, don’t tell philosophy’ of adventurous eating, we often find that we enjoy the flavor and go for seconds."

4. There is information you have a right to know, but it won’t be disclosed unless you ask for it.

As in this article about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Bank Fees.”

Or this gaming message board comment: “If I am correct, the gamestop warranty is pretty much a dont ask dont tell thing. Cause i know its that way on xboxs they will replace then for you as long as its within the year”

5. If you can’t deal with answers, don’t ask the questions.

From an advice column in Men’s Fitness:

Q: I want to become exclusive with the girl I'm dating, but there is one problem: She's slept with way more people than I have! It's driving me crazy. What should I do?

A: This sounds like a classic case of stage fright. You knew all along about her sexual history, and now you are holding back based on something you can't change: her past. If you can't let it go, then let her go. Next time, you might want to take the military's approach to your lady's past sexual exploits: Don't ask! Don't tell!

6. There is a question of whether to disclose information that could be held against you.

Used as a title of articles about telling your employer about dyslexia or depression.

7. There is information you might want to know, but no one has to tell you, even if you ask.

The phrase is used a lot in articles about food labeling where it has been decided that labeling is not required, such as, “FDA: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Cloned Meat” and “GM Food: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”

8. General catchall for “looking the other way.”

As seen in various random message boards:

“Yeah, legality is a dont ask dont tell thing around where I live. There are no emission laws thank the car god”

“everyone else has cats and theres even a few dogs, the landlady kinda told her it was more of a dont ask dont tell thing”

“I dont believe anyone received permission from the landowners, ever. It is run as a ‘dont ask dont tell’ thing that benefits everyone all around. the climbers have safe anchors and the landowners still have nothing to do with the climbers(no liability).”

...and apparently common in families:

“Husband works out of town we have an open relationship we know we both have needs its kind of a dont ask dont tell thing”

“me and my parents are kind of on a dont ask dont tell thing when it comes to smoking”

“I know my children know - but we do a ‘dont ask dont tell’ thing”

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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