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Non-native speaker here. I have come across this metaphor quite often: Person X complains / admires that if A told B to jump, B would just ask 'how high?'. What is the mental image behind that?

As far as I have figured out, this is supposed to mean that B is incredibly loyal to A and trusts / follows their command (blindly?) in stressful scenarios.

I am trying to figure out how asking 'how high?' when being told to jump, is a signal of trust instead of stupidity. If I am in a combat scenario and someone told me to jump (because something is trying to take my feet out from beneath me / the ground is breaking apart beneath me), then it would be the height of stupidity to stand around dumbly and ask 'how high?' instead of just reacting.

So I'm guessing that either my mental image or my interpretation of the 'jump - how high' meaning are wrong.

Which one is it?

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    "How high?" is generally a sign of blind obedience rather than trust. – KillingTime Jun 18 at 9:19
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    @KillingTime: But how is it blind obedience if I'm not even jumping but running my mouth? – subrunner Jun 18 at 9:23
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    I think the point is that they're only asking "how high?" and not "why?" or "is it safe?". – KillingTime Jun 18 at 9:40
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    Firstly, it's not likely that someone actually utters the word "Jump!" The expression is normally met with in a context such as "When Jill says 'Jump!' Jack doesn't even wait to ask 'How High?' ". Secondly, I'd say there is normally an implication of not just blind but dumb (naive, unwise ... slavish) obedience when the metaphor is used. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 18 at 10:02
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    The example of a combat scenario makes the dialog stupid, yes, but it's the example that's exaggerated. – Yosef Baskin Jun 18 at 13:38
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If I am in a combat scenario and someone told me to jump (because something is trying to take my feet out from beneath me / the ground is breaking apart beneath me), then it would be the height of stupidity to stand around dumbly and ask 'how high?' instead of just reacting

The whole point is that the command "Jump!" comes out of nowhere.

They are not in a situation where jumping is required, expected, or normal. Imagine them just walking down some supermarket's aisle shopping for stuff, among other shoppers. For no reason at all the boss commands "jump." That's such a weird thing to command at that moment, it's absurd... so obviously the subordinate asks "how high?"

Do you see how it's a betrayal of expectation that he asks "how high?" and not "why?"

That's part of why this adage is successful, because it sets up that the subordinate is asking a question, and the question that the reader/listener would expect to hear asked of a preposterous, stupid, unwarranted command is "why on earth would you want me to do that?" or even "why should I do that?"

But the reader/listener is surprised by the ACTUAL question that the subordinate asks, which ends up leaving in their minds a stronger emotional impression than the boring "Jump!" // *jumps* would.

It's a powerful, memorable, example of absolute loyalty.

I am trying to figure out how asking 'how high?' when being told to jump, is a signal of trust instead of stupidity

Okay, practically this story: "We were walking down the aisle, the boss said 'Jump!' and I instantly jumped" might technically be a better demonstration of obedience, but it doesn't subvert any kinds of expectations like the original does, doesn't play on common patterns (call-and-response), it doesn't enjoy any of the advantages of the actual adage that make it so memorable.

I would also say that perhaps the metaphor is not just used to establish the subordinate as a mindless robotic servant, but as an unwaveringly loyal human striving to acquiesce to every requirement of his liege. So asking for specification "how high?" could imply that the subordinate is aware of their subservient status, happy about it, and is even proactive to reinforce it. It's a stronger kind of loyalty than the "logical" instant-acquiescence is ("Jump!" // I must be in danger! *jumps*).

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  • Although your answer got the least upvotes, it made things the clearest for me. Thank you very much for your explanation! I had a lot of trouble with how 'how high' and 'blind obedience' go together, and it makes a lot of sense that it is not blind but helpful obedience. (And how exactly that is subverted by "when I say jump, you don't ask how high"). Thank you very much! – subrunner Jun 21 at 9:44
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I think you are meant to understand "Jump!" as an order to do some task for an unspecified reason, rather than a warning to take evasive action. Instead of questioning the reason, B simply asks for details of the required action.

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    Yes, exactly this. The point of the expression is that, given a seemingly pointless instruction (i.e. "jump!"), the subject does not ask why, but only considers how the instruction should be carried out. This emphasises the subject's absolute obedience to the authority, without questioning their motives. In some contexts this is positive, for instance in the military, where strict discipline and obedience is considered a virtue; in others it is negative, usually implying the subject is either incapable of independent thought, or is a sycophant sucking up to the authority. – Carcer Jun 18 at 17:45
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This expression can be used in a couple of different ways.

When I says "JUMP!" you ask "How high?"

In this case, a person is telling you that he is in charge, and you must obey without question. The stereotypical example is a drill sergeant yelling something like this at a trainee who has not responded quickly enough to an order, but it's also used by obnoxious bosses or by people trying to assert authority.

My personal belief is this originated as "When I say Jump, you Jump!, Don't ask how high" but the "How high" part emerged later as a way to emphasize the need for proactive compliance.

If John tells Fred to Jump, Fred will ask "how high". In this case, the speaker is saying that Fred is the sort of person who will quickly obey a command from John. It implies not just obedience, but an obsequious, fawning obedience, a desire to please John by going beyond what is asked. The motive for this obedience could be fear, or could be admiration.

Usually this means that Fred is not only willing to obey John, but actually wants to please him by going above and beyond the original request. Fred is not just obeying the command, he's offering to jump to a specific height.

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Having been in the military where (I think) this phrase originated, I think the other answers all kind of miss the point a little bit.

The point of basic training in the military is to break you down and then build you up again. The breaking down involves getting rid of things that were normal in the civilian world but out of place in the military, especially for a new recruit.

Thinking for yourself is high up on that list. You don't know squat about combat or anything else and thinking for yourself is only going to get you or, worse, someone else killed.

When told to jump, you don't ask "why?" because you are too ignorant to even need to know why. Further, you're not even knowledgeable enough to know how high to jump, so you better ask.

So asking "how high?" is a combination of obedience and acknowledgment of your lack of expertise.

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As @Kate says, "Jump!" is simply an example of a task. There are three possible responses:

  1. You jump (follow whatever the instruction was), without question.
  2. You ask "How high?" indicating a willingness to do it, but wanting more input.
  3. You ask "Why?"

or you simply refuse (4), which is rather out of scope here.

I've normally heard it as "When Person A asks you to jump, don't even ask 'How high?'" — that is, just do whatever is ordered. Don't even think of possibility 3, let alone 4. Person A is not be trifled with.

In your example, it's slightly different, as B won't do 3 (or 4): he's always willing to do whatever A tells him. As you say, that attitude might be praised or scorned.

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    To me, asking "how high" goes beyond a simple willingness to do a task, implying an eagerness to please whoever commands it. The details of how high to jump don't matter at all, but the jumper wants to ensure complete obedience and fulfill the request perfectly. The implication is less "I need more details" and more "How else may I serve you?". – Nuclear Hoagie Jun 18 at 18:09
  • @NuclearHoagie Yes, +1 for "eagerness to please". I think that's the most accurate description so far. – J... Jun 18 at 18:27
  • I've heard a 5th response that breaks the laws of physics: When person A asks you to jump, you're expected to jump and ask "how high" on the way up. – Nzall Jun 18 at 21:11
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To supplement the previous answers, this not only implies person B's eagerness to please person A, but also is a request for clarification for what appears to be an absurd command. It's simply not the question someone would ask without having a blind obedience to the requestor.

I don't think this expression is referring to battle conditions, but asking person B to jump simply for person A's amusement. There's no point to it, and you literally end up back where you've started within a fraction of a second. Person B is not only willing to perform meaningless tasks, but also wants to perform that meaningless task perfectly.

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