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"Ask not for whom the bell tolls" is a popular cliche. My understanding is that it comes from John Donne's Meditation XVII (1623). But in Donne's poem, the line is

any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

So where did "ask not" come from? Is it a common mistake (or deliberate modernization) or is there another source for this quote?

Ask not for whom the dog barks doormat

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    At a guess, it's a deliberate modernization. – Centaurus Jun 14 '16 at 20:41
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    The earliest instance of the (misremembered? deliberate modernization?) more "snappy" version I can find is this from 1936. That at least predates Hemingway's 1937 book (which I suspect may have had much to do with why many people needed the more accessible rephrasing). – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '16 at 20:46
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    @FumbleFingers -- It is bizarre how the Google book search returns radically different results due to minor changes in the search argument. – Hot Licks Jun 14 '16 at 22:38
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    This is a great question. Wish there were more like it on EL&U. – Dan Bron Jun 14 '16 at 23:54
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    Keep in mind that "never send to know" implies that you are rich/powerful enough to have someone do your bidding. "Ask not" carries no such implication. Without this "modernization" the line would seem irrelevant to many people. – Hot Licks Sep 17 '17 at 2:47
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I was curious to know whether the "ask not" preface that people commonly attach to Donne's original wording was an artifact of the early 1960s, perhaps under the influence of John Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" rhetoric in his inaugural address of January 20, 1961, or whether the cobbled-together wording preceded Kennedy's speech. To find out, I ran Google Books searches for the phrase (in various forms) from 1600 through 1961.


Clearing up a misdated match

As noted by FumbleFingers in a comment beneath the posted question, a Google Books search for the now-familiar "Ask not..." form of the phrase returns a very early match allegedly from League of Wisconsin Municipalities, The Municipality (1936):

"No man is an island, apart to himself.....so ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." John Dunne wrote these lines two centuries ago. Yet they embrace us today.

If the 1936 date were correct, this match would antedate both Kennedy's speech and Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)—whose epigraph, by the way, quotes Donne's poem accurately. But if you combine snippets to extend the boundaries of the viewable text from the "1936" source, you'll find that an earlier paragraph begins with a reference to "President-elect Nixon"—proof that the quoted language is actually from a different and much later source—specifically, from Annual Congress of Cities, volume 45 (1969). The Google Books match from 1936 is based on erroneous linkage between the 1969 text and the title page of an unrelated 1936 periodical collection.


Early confirmed matches for 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls'

I mentioned earlier that the epigraph Hemingway uses for his novel quotes Donne accurately. So does the 1943 film version of the novel (starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman), according to the IMDB listing for the movie:

Opening credits prologue: any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde: and therefore never send to know For Whom The Bell Tolls It tolls for thee.

Nevertheless, legitimate matches for "ask not for whom the bell tolls" begin popping up soon after Hemingway's novel appeared.

From "Pinkett's Prattle," in the [Lincoln University, Pennsylvania] Lincolnian (March 10, 1941):

Glancing over the headlines, I see that: ... Over 500 persons were arrested in Delaware for Sunday blue law violations. Who arrested the cops? ... Connie Mack rates the Yanks the greatest team of all time. I wonder if anyone had the nerve to ask him what he thought of the A's? ... Eighteen members of Bulgaria's parliament voted against Hitler's occupation of that country. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for them" . . .

From "Exchanges: Toll On, Toll On," in the Vassar [College, Poughkeepsie, New York] Miscellany News (June 7, 1944):

News of servicemen on Campus told by the "Minnesota Daily" includes what they term "Vital Statistics: budding leaves, sprouting trees, gentle zephyrs and sunny days are taking their toll. We have it on very reliable authority that Miss Muriel Goldsmith and Pfc. Joe Cantor are on the verge of matrimony."

This use of the word "toll" seems to us unnecessarily lugubrious; its moody connotations are infinite—"Ask not for whom the bell tolls," and "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day." We could continue.

From "Quiz," in the [Perth, Western Australia] Daily News (December 21, 1946):

9—You know the book and film title "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Here is the quotation from which it comes "Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." Who was the English poet who wrote the poem ? Swinburne; Milton; Shakespeare; Donne; Shelley?

From Richard Boyer, If This Be Treason (1948) [combined snippets]:

...in Spain are in prison. So is the country. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

But it need not. It will not if the people organize for peace and abundance behind the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace. It will not if the people mobilize and force President Truman to live up to his campaign promises; to move for international peace, to liquidate the Taft Hartley Law, to terminate the cold war, to maintain the Bill of Rights for all Americans and not only for these Americans with whom Wall Street agrees.

From Northwestern University on the Air, the Reviewing Stand (1948) [combined snippets]:

MR. HAGSTRUM: I was rather amused to read that after Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls came out with its quotation from John Donne's Devotions people came to the libraries and wanted the complete works of John Donne. Here was one book which influenced another much in the same manner as a movie will influence the sale of the book.

MR. BUCHANAN: That's because of "Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

MR. HAGSTRUM: Exactly.


Confirmed matches from the decade 1951–1960

Three of the five matches for "ask not for whom the bell tolls" that I found from the 1940s were from college newspapers, along with one from an Australian newspaper quiz and one from an American political screed. In the 1950s and in 1960, the wording appeared much more frequently (I found sixteen instances of it) and in a wider array of sources.

From Official Proceedings of the New York Railroad Club, volume 62 (1951) [combined snippets]:

You probably remember Ernest Hemingway's book of a few years ago entitled "FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS." The theme was that when one man dies, a little bit of all mankind dies. The full quotation on which he based his story was, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for everyone." If anything was ever true as it applies to business that certainly is true today. Years ago the bell tolled for the railroads. No one was very frightened then, but as the bells toll for others we gain understanding and frightened comrades.

From Aircraft, volume 13 (1951) [combined snippets]:

And it is a well known truth that for the first four or five postwar years the little man knew little and cared less about how he could personally be affected by the earlier counterparts of the violation of an obscure place called Korea or the usurping of an oil refinery in Abadan. To him, "ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee", was only a gloomy quotation from a poem, not likely to be construed as a warning.

From The Election Issues of 1952: A Series of Addresses and Papers (April 24, 1952) [combined snippets]:

If American liberty is, in fact, being lost, don't blame it on the Constitution, nor on the statute law, nor even on what Whitman calls "the insolence of Elected Persons". The blame will lie, not on the extension of federal power, but on the ordinary citizen who lies supine while he is being stripped of his most valuable possessions. For what they can do to one man, they can do to any other. "Ask not for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee."

From New Zealand Engineering, volume 7 (1952):

Hence, to prevent his dying of starvation, or his children of disease and malnutrition, has an appeal to us. The quotation from John Donne, from which Hemingway took the title of his book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls", seems to me to have especial relevance here: ". . . for I am involved in all mankind. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

We are all involved in all mankind.

From "Tower to Town," in the [Boston College, Massachusetts] Heights (November 5, 1954):

There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight (and tomorrow). We mention a few diversions that could succeed in dragging you away from the three r's.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." A series of PreCana Conferences for engaged couples will begin Monday evening, November Bth, at St. Alphonsus Hall, Smith St., Roxbury. For information on this invaluable aid to a successful marriage, contact Mr. or Mrs. Joseph Hanbury, 88 Calumet St., BE 2-9281. Reservations are necessary.

From Gladys Edwards, Not in the Stars (1945[?]/1956) [combined snippets]:

"Man Is The Brother of Man ..."

The poet spoke a great truth when he said, "a part of all humanity and nothing that is human is alien to me." You have heard it expressed in many ways. An old proverb says, "Man is the brother of man whether he likes it or not." John Donne said, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. " It is said in many ways because, however it is expressed, it is one of the great truths.

From "Addresses by Members of the House of Representatives," in The Lithuanian Situation (1956):

Mr. HOLTZMAN. ... As no man can be an island entire unto himself, so no nation can stand apart and enjoy freedom while others are crushed by tyranny, for every bit of freedom that is lost anywhere in the world makes every man that much less free. In the words of John Donne, ask not "for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee," wherever freedom is destroyed.

From Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the ... Congress, volume 102 (1956) [combined snippets]:

Mr. EDMONDSON. Mr. Speaker, it has been a privilege and an honor to serve in the House of Representatives with the gentleman from North Carolina, CHARLES DEANE. There is an old bit of verse which includes the words: Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

From Hollington Tong, What is Ahead for China?: Collection of Speeches, June 1956-February 1957 (1957) [snippet view]:

And so, I tell you in the words of the English poet, if that dread combination ever hardens, then ask not for whom the bell in Red China tolls. It will toll for you—for all of us!

From Georgia State AFL-CIO, Proceedings of the Annual Convention (1957):

We are not asking for ourselves. I read it someplace somewhere, and I guess there was a movie made someplace somewhere that they called “A Bell for Adano."

Somebody said in that, I think, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, for the bell tolls for thee."

And that is why when there is a strike of the Dobb's House workers, when there is a picket for the painters, when there is a picket on for any union, that is your union on fight, that is your union that is trying to live, that is the organization you ought to support.

From Selections from Freedom, volume 6 (1957):

We recognise that as long as we are careless of the well-being of others we provide conditions wherein both they and we suffer. As Eugene Debs said: 'While there is a soul in prison, I am not free' or John Donne: 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls : it tolls for thee.'

From Cooperative Union, Report of the Annual Co-operative Congress (1958):

Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls

Mr. A. E. Jupp, C.S.D. (Co-operative Productive Federation): I speak as a delegate from the Co-operative Productive Federation. When I listened to the first few contributions to the discussion I began to wonder whether the Co-operative Movement had given up its celebrated role of self-criticism for one of self-castigation. The punishment meted out for sins of omission in the past made me wonder whether we should be so exhausted by that punishment as to be unable to face the future.

From Punch, volume 236 (1958) [combined snippets]:

Later (by wire):

IF NO REPLY TO MY LAST LETTER WITHIN THREE DAYS SHALL HAVE NO OPTION BUT TO ASSUME IT WAS SENT IN ERROR TO EVENING STANDARD STOP NOW THAT YOU HAVE GOT HAILSHAM DOWN THERE ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS STOP WHAT ON EARTH CAN CHELTENHAM AND TUNBRIDGE WELLS BE THINKING OF YOU EXCLAMATION MARK

From Parliamentary Debates (Hansard): House of Representatives, volume 14 (1959) [combined snippets]:

which will not face up to the fact that we have 81,000 registered unemployed and which will not recognize the grave moral effects of unemployment, the cancer in the heart of the community. We are reminded of the old proverb, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls". Unemployment affects not only the worker but every one in the community.

From Frederik Gruber, Aspects of Value (1959) [combined snippets]:

Every individual in the free world wants, for himself at least, freedom, welfare, equality, and peace: freedom both for individual self-realization and from oppressive governmental and organizational control; welfare for the pursuit of happiness and the good life; equality and the recognition of human dignity and worth as a material right from the Creator; and peace within the framework of democratic liberty. Unfortunately, many men are not convinced of the "togetherness" about which Cowan writes, especially in "The Magic Garden," nor, do we realize fully the impact of John Donne's plea for brotherhood in the lines, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee," or the neighborliness of the Good Samaritan.

And from a speech of February 1, 1960, in Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the ... Congress, volume 106, part 2 (1960):

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND—ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

No man is an island, entire of itself—

Said John Donne‚ ...


Conclusions

Altogether, I found twenty-one matches for "Ask not for whom the bell tolls" prior to 1961: five from the period 1941–1948 and sixteen from the period 1951–1960. The sources of these matches ranged from college newspaper reporters to speakers at trade associations and union gatherings to political commentators to (of course) elected officials.

Purely on the basis of the time sequence, I suspect that the ultimate cause of the misquotation of Donne's verse was Hemingway's novel—not because it misquoted Donne, but because it popularized a previously rather obscure verse known to relatively few people, and it did so without fully repeating the original wording for context. Presented with the fragment in Hemingway's title, people supplied the "Ask not" prefatory words to round the phrase into a complete sentence in a simple yet solemn (not to say stilted) form.

By 1960, awareness of the expression in its "Ask not" form was widespread. The chronology indicates that it was probably firmly established in popular culture before Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" inaugural speech of 1961. Indeed, if anything, it may have influenced Kennedy's choice of his syntactically similar phrase.

Ultimately, I couldn't find a single obvious source of the "Ask not for whom the bell tolls" wording that would explain its popular adoption. Rather, it seems to have developed slowly, over a period of years, as people unfamiliar or only slightly familiar with Donne's original wording came to believe that the "Ask not" wording was the original form of the phrase.

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    I couldn't ask for a more thorough answer! – Robert Sep 17 '17 at 3:31
  • Western Australia* Not West Australia. – Clonkex Dec 29 '18 at 7:13
  • @Clonkex: Right you are: "South Australia," but "Western Australia" and "Northern Territory"; I've corrected the error. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Dec 29 '18 at 9:12
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    "Ask not for whom that awful funeral bell/ with long, and deep - toned accents wounds the ear". Poem by Elizabeth Bentley, 1821. There is a good PFD of her book published in 1835. 1821, – Phil Sweet Apr 3 at 0:03
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    1835, p69 This time frame seems more in keeping with the style. – Phil Sweet Apr 3 at 0:03
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W.J. Rayment on indepth info.com does a good job explaining... "People of that time were understandably agitated when they heard the funeral bell toll. At the time people lived by the bells in the church steeple. To hear funeral bells was the equivalent today of broaching the obituaries in the newspaper. It is interesting to note that Donne tells his reader to "never send to ask...". For modern readers this will seem a curious phrase. Yet at the time, modern communication systems did not exist. Anyone with wealth had servants to provide the conveniences that today are provided by machines in most technological societies. Thus Donne is speaking to the wealthy person saying, don't send your servant to find out who is dead."

So today it would be more like saying "When you see/hear that there is a terrorist attack, don't google "who were the victims of the terrorist attack?", because we are all connected and therefore all victims of the terrorist attack (terrorist attack in this example)." The important part isn't who died - but that a piece of humanity died.

I think the proper way to structure phrases using this quote would be ... don't ask "for whom the bell tolls", since the "don't ask" isn't part of the quote - just part of the way people tend to use the quote.

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The English form consisting of a verb (bare form) followed by not is a common literary device.

Here is a charming explanation of it in a book called : **The Mother Tongue: an elementary English grammar by George Lyman Kittredge, ‎Sarah Louise Arnold · 1908 · ‎English language The Mother Tongue

  1. In poetry and the solemn style prohibition is often expressed by the simple imperative, followed by not .

Look not upon the wine when it is red.

Speak not, but go.

Judge not , that ye be not judged.

Apart from those Bible citations by those authors, Shakespeare uses this form but it is a pain to search for it:

Timon of Athens [I, 1]

I thank you; you shall hear from me anon: Go not away. What have you there, my friend?

Romeo and Juliet

LADY CAPULET
Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word. Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee. Exit. (3.5.196-203)

See more examples from Shakespeare site

So, "ask not" [for whom the bell tolls] comes from a poetic usage of an imperative followed by not.

And William Wordsworth used "ask not for whom":

Ask not for whom, O Champions true!
She was reserved by me her life's betrayer;
She who was meant to be a bride
Is now a corpse: then put aside
Vain thoughts, and speed ye, with observance due
Of Christian rites, in Christian ground to lay her." (1835)

The Egyptian Maid

I do not know who first said "Ask not for whom the bell tolls", but it is not a misquotation, but rather a poetic usage in keeping with English attested to by The Bard.

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