The Ethicist

by Randy Cohen

New York Times Magazine Jan. 28, 2007

In ch. 1, Curzan and Adams discuss the metathesis of OE acsian > ascian. This is reflected in MnE ask / aks. Initially the variation carried no particular stigma, but today that may not be the case. Here is the letter New York Times columnist Randy Cohen received about this question:

I was to screen candidates for a job at my office that requires considerable phone time with our high-end, snobbish customers. When my boss said, ''Don't bring in anyone who wants to 'ax' you a question,'' my first reaction was that she wanted me to exclude African-Americans. My boss claims to support equal opportunity, but was she being racist here? name withheld, New York

Here's the Ethicist's reply:

Was your boss brusque? Yes. Uncouth? Perhaps. Unkempt? I can't say; I've never seen her. Racist? I can't say that either, and neither can you. There's not enough information. Using ''ax'' in place of ''ask'' is sometimes done in casual conversation by some African-Americans, but it is done by other groups as well. Since the job calls for chitchat with status-conscious clients, your boss might have been emphasizing the importance of finding someone -- of any ethnicity -- who speaks standard English with sufficient ease to cater to the tastes, reinforce the prejudices and stroke the vanity of your snobbish customers (perhaps someone named Jeeves). It is possible that your boss was making a coded allusion to race, but absent other indications of racism on her part, she deserves the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE: The questioner was taken off the search for reasons unrelated to this conversation. The company hired ''a girl from Queens,'' white, with a slight regional accent and no extraordinary verbal sophistication.