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Hem and haw

Q From T Foxe: I was wondering about the expression hem and haw? Has it anything to do with teamstering? I ask because of the horse team commands for turning left and right (gee and haw). Could it be one of the American expressions placing two unrelated actions together indicating confusion or hesitation?

A Nothing at all to do with teamstering commands, so far as I know. Incidentally, yours is the usual American version of the expression. In Britain, we know it as hum and haw. Either way the phrase contains a pair of words that are imitative. A close relative of the first of these is ahem, indicating a gentle clearing of the throat designed to attract attention; hem more often represents the slight clearing of the throat of a hesitating or nonplussed speaker. Haw is very much the same kind of word, and a close relative of that is haw-haw, which is also an imitative word for a kind of loftily affected way of speaking (as in Lord Haw-Haw, the British nickname for William Joyce, who broadcast for Hitler in the Second World War). In the British version of the phrase, hum is another word for a low inarticulate murmur. Either way, the two words together illustrate very well the hesitation and indecisiveness to which the phrases refer. There are other versions and both are closely related to um and er.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Dec. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 December 2000.