Dear Word Detective: Where did the expression “to hem and haw” come from? I have also heard it “to him and haw.” Either way, please clarify its meaning and origin. — Mark Anderson.
Well, which is it? “Hem and haw” or “him and haw”? Or is it “hum and hoo”? Ever heard the expression “hish and horp”? Me neither. But it would really help if you would pick one question and stick to it. Then again, wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who said “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”? Truer words were never spoken. Unless they were spoken by W.B. Yeats, which, come to think of it, they were. Golly, this being certain business is hard.
Which is, of course, where “hem and haw” (the usual form) comes in. Depending on one’s point of view, when you are “hemming and hawing,” you are either dithering and refusing to give a definite answer, or simply (as the politicians say) “keeping your options open.”
For a species known for its willingness to leap before looking, humanity has a remarkably long history of “hemming and hawing.” The phrase in that form first appeared in the late 18th century (“I hemmed and hawed … but the Queen stopped reading,” 1786), but other forms (“hem and hawk,” “hum and haw,” etc.) are a few centuries older, and the “hem” and the “haw” are both considerably older than the whole phrase.
The basic meaning of “hem,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation.” If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is the same sound depicted by the interjection “ahem,” the difference being that “ahem” is an actual word used to attract attention to the speaker, rather than producing the sound “hem” itself. One uses “ahem” in situations where, for instance, making noises with one’s throat might be either rude or ineffective. The verb “to hem,” meaning to make the noise, dates to the 15th century, and is “echoic” in origin, being an imitation of the sound itself. “Hem” is also closely related to “hum,” also echoic.
“Haw,” which dates back to the 1600s, is another case of a word imitating a sound, in this case “as an expression of hesitation” (OED). There are fashions in such things, and today we are more likely to say “uh,” “huh,” or “um” when faced with a sudden decision, but the feeling is the same.
So, put together, “hem and haw” vividly describes that moment when our mouth stalls for time while our mind attempts to assess the ramifications of our possible answers, the mental “looking” before the verbal “leaping.” And while it’s annoying to ask a question and be answered with “hemming and hawing,” there’s an argument to be made that the world could do with a little less instant certainty.