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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hem and haw

Hem and haw

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hem and haw'?

To hem and haw is to speak indistinctly. making frequent pauses. More generally, hemming and hawing is acting indecisively.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hem and haw'?

The two-word construct 'hem and haw' is, like numerous English phrases, made from two words of similar meaning which are put together for the sake of emphasis. Other examples of this are 'beck and call', 'aid and abet' etc.

Nowadays, when a person is prevaricating in their speech we might say they are 'umming and ahing', which is a recent example of the many variants of 'hemming and hawing'.

Hem is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'to give a short sharp cough as a signal; to clear the throat; to stammer or hesitate in speech; to express disapproval of a speaker by factitious coughing'.

Haw is defined as 'An utterance marking hesitation'.

Clearly the two words are close cousins.

There are several other words which are variants. Of hem, we have 'hum', 'ahem' and, more recently 'erm'. Of haw, we have 'ha', 'er' and 'hawke' (the name for guttural coughing). Unsurprisingly, there are numerous permutations of these found in print as variants of 'hem and haw:

Hum and haw
Um and ah
Hem and hawke
and so on...

In the late 14th century, in Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer referred to a character who 'hewed' and 'gan to hum'. The first version of the expression that equates to our current usage is found in the writings of the English Tudor priest John Palsgrave. His Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse [Clarification of the French language], 1530, contains:

"He hummeth and haeth and wyll nat come out withall."

The expression travelled to America and began to be used there around the end of the 19th century. In the UK the expression survives but is here more commonly spelled as 'hum and haw'.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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