Where does the expression “to hem and haw” come from and What does it mean?

The expression “to hem and haw” means: To express hesitancy or uncertainty; sometimes to express a qualified disapproval.

Actually we have made a compound verb out of two vocal sounds by which we ordinarily express such hesitance.

That is, we “hem” when we clear the throat with a slight vocal effort, as if about to speak; we “haw,” originally “hawk,” when we clear the throat with greater effort.

where does the expression to hem and haw come from and what does it mean

Back in 1580, in Gervase Babington’s A Profitable Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, we find, “Wee gape and we yawne, we hem and we hawke.”

A century earlier, however, in one of the Paston Letters written in 1469, we find: “He wold have gotyn it aweye by humys (hums) and by hays (ha’s or haws), but I wold not so be answeryd.”

Shakespeare, as did some other writers of the seventeenth century, used “hum and ha.”

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist for zippyfacts.com. Born in New York, she loves interesting random facts from all over the world.