A Post-Military Taxonomy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Oct. 2 2013 11:56 AM

A Post-Military Taxonomy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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A sign in support of the end of 'don't ask, don't tell.'

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.
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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 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, which would make it 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 It has been two years since "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed as a military policy, but it seems to have taken up residence in our storehouse of ready-made expressions for good, which is not surprising, considering how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 common set of circumstances.

Here are five situations in which 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. 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.

3. 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!

4. 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?"

5. 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"

What do you think, is "don't ask, don't tell" too useful to abandon or is it irredeemably tainted by its discriminatory past?

A version of this post originally appeared on the Week, where Arika Okrent offers three additional categories for the use of "don't ask, don't tell."

Arika Okrent holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages.

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