Tag Archives: the origin of hem and haw

What Is The Origin Of (272)?…

Hem and haw

One of the many attributes a politician needs to get to the top of what is a slippery pole is the ability to deflect a question, keeping their options open and issuing a cloud of words that obfuscates the simple fact that they have not addressed the question. Perhaps W.B Yeats was right when he observed in his poem, The Second Coming, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. To hem and haw is to speak hesitantly or indecisively, usually with lots of ums and erms interspersing the trickle of discernible words.

The two verbs conjoined by and both had independent existences before they came together. Hem is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation”. It is what grammarians call an echoic verb, one that imitates the sound itself, in this instance of someone clearing their throat as if to speak. It has lent itself to the word ahem, which is used as a more polite way to clear one’s throat, either preparatory to speech or to warn someone of your presence.

Haw also echoes the sound it represents, defined by the OED as “an expression of hesitation”. It is one of those nothing words that pepper people’s daily speech, like, uh, um, huh, a verbal stopgap to allow someone to gather their thoughts and continue with whatever it is they have to say.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the two should have been put together, suggesting the impression of someone clearing their throat and gathering their thoughts before launching into the next part of their dialogue. One of the characters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from the late 14th century, is described as someone who “hewed” and “gan to hum”. John Palsgrave, an English priest and compiler of his Lesclarcissement de la langue francyose from 1530, in which he sought to explain to his English readers the intricacies of the French tongue, was probably the first to put the two elements together; “he hummeth and heath and wyll nat come out withall”.       

The English language was even more fluid in those days than it is now and variants such as hum and haw or um and ah or hem and hawke began to appear. It seemed that you could perm any two from the collection and the meaning would remain the same. In American English hem and haw is more common whereas in English as spoken in Blighty we seem to prefer hum and haw.

Jonathan Swift, in his 1728 poem called My Lady’s Lamentation used hum and haw, albeit the other way round, for the purposes of the rhyme; “he haws and he hums./ At last out it comes”.  A meeting with royalty may be a justifiable occasion for a bit of hemming and hawing. In this instance from 1786 it clearly had the desired effect; “I hemmed and hawed…but the Queen stopped reading”.

Haw also has the sense, at least these days, of a rather lofty, affected way of speaking. It is no coincidence that this was reflected in the British nickname of Lord Haw-Haw given to William Joyce who broadcast regularly to these shores at the behest of Hitler during the Second World War.

At least, someone who hems and haws is perhaps giving some careful consideration to what they are saying, which can’t be a bad thing, unless they are a politician, of course.