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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 It has been two years since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed as a military policy, but it seems to have taken up residence in our storehouse of ready-made expressions for good, which is not surprising, considering how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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Rebecca O'Connell
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What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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12 Things Called ‘French’ In English and Whether They're Actually French
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Happy Bastille Day! To celebrate this French holiday, let’s take a look at some of the things we call "French" in English that may not be French at all.

1. FRENCH TOAST

They don’t eat French toast in France. There, it’s called pain perdu ("lost bread," because it’s what you do with stale bread) or pain doré (golden bread). In the 17th century French toast was a term used for any kind of bread soaked and then griddled: In a 1660 citation, it refers to bread soaked in wine with sugar and orange and then cooked.

2. FRENCH VANILLA

Vanilla is a bean from a tropical plant not grown in France, so what’s so French about French vanilla? French vanilla was originally not a term for a type of vanilla, but a type of vanilla ice cream, one made using a French technique with an eggy, custard base. It’s since detached from ice cream and become a flavor with a certain rich profile.

3. FRENCH DRESSING

Originally the phrase French dressing referred to the type of dressing people might actually eat in France: oil, vinegar, herbs, maybe a little mustard. But somehow during the early 20th century it came to be the name for a pinkish-red, ketchup-added version that’s totally American.

4. FRENCH PRESS

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In France, the French press coffeemaker, a pot for steeping coffee grounds with a plunger for filtering them out, is called a cafetière à piston or just a bodum after the most common brand. It may have been invented in France, but the first patent for one was taken out by an Italian in 1929. The style of coffee became popular in France in the 1950s, and was later referred to by American journalists as "French-press style coffee."

5. FRENCH KISS

The term French kiss, for kissing with tongue, came into English during World War I when soldiers brought the phrase—and perhaps the kissing style—back from the war with them. French had long been used as a common adjective for various naughty, sexually explicit things like French letters (condoms), French postcards (naked pictures), and French pox (VD). In French, to kiss with the tongue is rouler un patin, “roll a skate” (having to do with gliding?), but in Québec they do say frencher.

6. FRENCH HORN

In French, a French horn is a cor d’harmonie or just cor, a name given to the looping, tubed hunting horns that were made in France in the 17th century. French became to the way to distinguish it from other horn types, like the German or Viennese horn, which had different types of tubes and valves.

7. FRENCH FRIES

The phrase French fries evolved in North America at the end of the 19th century out of the longer “French fried potatoes.” The dish is said to be more properly Belgian than French, but it was introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson after he brought a recipe back from France. In French they are simply pommes frites, fried potatoes.

8. FRENCH MANICURE

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The French manicure, a pinkish, nude nail with a bright, whitened tip, was apparently invented in Hollywood in the 1970s. It began to be called a French manicure after the look made it to fashion runways. The style isn’t as popular in France, but women there do tend toward a groomed look with a natural color. In France, the term has been borrowed in from English: It's called la French manucure.

9. FRENCH BRAID

The term French braid (or French plait in British English) has been around since the 1870s, but the braid style itself, where hair is gathered gradually from the sides of the head over the course of braiding, has been around for thousands of years, according to archeological artifacts. It may have become associated with France simply for being seen as high fashion and French being equated with stylishness. In French, they also call this specific style of braid a French braid, or tresse française.

10. FRENCH TWIST

The vertically rolled and tucked French twist hairdo also came to be in the 19th century, and was also associated with French high fashion. In French it is called a chignon banane for its long, vertical shape.

11. FRENCH MAID

Housemaids in 19th-century France did wear black and white uniforms—though they were not quite as skimpy as the French maid costumes you see today. The French maid became a trope comic character in theater and opera, and the costume, along with other titillating characteristics, came to define what we now think of as the classic French maid.

12. FRENCH BREAD

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These days French bread has come to stand for any white bread with a vaguely baguette-like shape, whether or not it has a traditional, crusty exterior. It has been used as a term in English as far back as the 15th century to distinguish it from other, coarser types of bread.

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