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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 It has been two years since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed as a military policy, but it seems to have taken up residence in our storehouse of ready-made expressions for good, which is not surprising, considering how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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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers
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Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of sales. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck gift hunting!

1. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED; $12

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. PENCILS; $9

These pencils will help keep common homophones straight. The retro sets of five are decorated with gold foil letters hand-pressed onto the sides. The Etsy store also offers up a set of red pencils that feature short, grammar-positive statements.

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3. QUOTE EARRINGS; $9

High marks: The delicate metal earrings are about a half-inch tall, making them a subtle but charming choice for any punctuation lover.

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4. *YOU'RE NECKLACE; $24 AND UP

*You're necklace
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The pendant, which comes in the material of your choice, is dedicated to a well-known pet peeve amongst the literate.

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5. PUNCTUATION POSTER; $36

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

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6. SHADY CHARACTERS; $12

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

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7. AMPERSAND MARQUEE; $19

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

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8. POP CULTURE PARTS OF SPEECH; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. OWL SHIRT; $15

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

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Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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