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What does ASAP really mean?

By Dave Jagodowski
March 8, 2021

What does ASAP really mean?

You hear it all the time in service industries: “I need that ASAP!” or the more polite, “Could I get that ASAP?”

But what does that really mean? Does it mean the client is offering to pay a rush fee in exchange for a guaranteed delivery time? Usually not. Does it mean the service provider is supposed to drop whatever they are doing and get right on it? Unlikely. The truth is that there is a lot of disparity in the meaning of ASAP.

The origins of ASAP

From a literary perspective, ASAP is considered an adverbial phrase that can be pronounced as a traditional initialism (A-S-A-P), a four-letter acronym (pronounced ay-sap), and of course the long form, “as soon as possible.” All variations are equally accepted in conversation, but if you’re really in a hurry, opt for ay-sap just to show you don’t have time to mess around with extra syllables.

Like many acronyms, ASAP has its roots in military jargon where it can be presumed to have the context of “as soon as militarily possible.” Its first known use in print was in Captain Annis G. Thompson’s 1954 book on the Korean War, The Greatest Airlift.[1] Given how that particular skirmish turned out, it probably looked something like “Sir, we need to get the hell out of this war ASAP!”

military tank approaching hourglass under rockets red glare

The ASAP rules of engagement

ASAP was soon thrust into civilian life, where it quickly overtook posthaste and lickety-split. But outside its military context, the phrase became diluted and lost any specific meaning.

ASAP is still very effective when prioritizing one task ahead of others. For example, if your client says, “The ads can wait, but I need the presentation ASAP,” it’s perfectly clear what they want. Here, ASAP establishes a clear hierarchy.

But that clarity completely disappears when there is a single task (“I need a presentation created ASAP,” for example). In that context, ASAP could be construed in many ways:

  • A subtle dig: “Don’t dawdle. I know how you people like to ride the clock.”
  • A sincere query: “Are rush services are available? I have gold bullion, gemstones, and Bitcoin.”
  • A gentle reminder: “If you like my money and want to see more of it, you’ll get this done really quick.”

two individuals connected by a checklist

When ASAP means nothing

Sometimes the client says, “I need this by 11:00 a.m. or ASAP.” The intent here is obvious: the client would like the job done by 11:00 a.m. Earlier is better, but later is OK if 11:00 a.m. isn’t possible.

To be clearer, the client could say, “I need this for an 11:00 a.m. meeting.” Adding ASAP only creates undesirable options.

smartwatch malfunctioning due to inconsistent meaning of ASAP

Don’t rush… I only need it ASAP

Some service providers offer “rush service,” where the client agrees to pay extra in exchange for preferential service. Paying for rush service doesn’t necessarily mean the workers will be slamming energy drinks to increase their productivity. It simply means the job moves into an earlier time slot, so it is completed sooner.

The rush fees may be applied to cover the costs associated with shifting around schedules and resources—or they may just serve to “keep out the riff-raff.” In contrast, ASAP is about starting the job in the next available time slot when resources become available.

In this case, ASAP means, “get to it when you can.” But GTIWYC is a terrible initialism, and no one will want to pronounce it “gitty-wick.”

stopwatch with dollar sign on face equals calendar with date marked

It’s time for A-SAP to go A-WAY

Perhaps the biggest problem with ASAP is that it has stopped being a special situation and has become an everyday expectation. In an age when we can order items online 24/7; expect two-day delivery (and get violently upset if it takes three); have pizzas delivered to our door in under 30 minutes; and get instant access to any television show, movie, or book ever produced, who needs to say ASAP anymore?

Outside of the occasional 9-1-1 call and your smart car battery dying inside Bear Country USA, it’s not really needed because it’s already implied.

So, the next time a customer comes along and asks, “Can I get that ASAP?” remember that they are only reaffirming the expectation that it will be done as quickly as it can be done with no special favors.[2]

If you offer a rush service, tell them. If you don’t, give them a copy of this blog. They’ll never ask again.

map gameplan, dollar sign, speeding stopwatch

[1] Gary Martin, “The meaning and origin of the expression: ASAP - As soon as possible,” The Phrase Finder.

[2] And there it is. ASAP always comes down to what is possible. (Maybe that’s the word that truly needs defining.)