Just sayin'

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Bob Moore asks:

Has Language Log ever looked at the origins of "(I'm) just saying'" as a stand alone utterance (without an S or S-bar complement)? In last night's episode of "Downton Abbey" on PBS, one of the servants used it in a scene set in 1916. I am not aware of having heard it much before, say, 2005, so I am wondering if this was a howling anachronism. Just sayin' :-)

I don't think that we've discussed it, except for a comment or two.

But first, what is it? Some of the glosses in the generally-unreliable Urban Dictionary seem to get this one right:

A phrase that is used when someone is offended by something you said. This phrase then removes all the offensiveness of the previous statement, making it all good.

Response when your motive for saying something is questioned and you a) had no motive or b) do not want to reveal your motive.

A phrase used to signify that a previous comment one made was not intended to cause offense or annoyance, but was simply a statement of a personal opinion or an observation that the stater doesn't care enough to fight over.

A published fictional example — Sarah N. Harvey, Death Benefits, 2010:

"How long you figure you're going to be able to play the dead-grandfather card?" Dani's friend Josh asks me after the last class of the day.
"Shut up, Josh," his girlfriend, Taylor, says. "That's so, like, insensitive."
"I'm just sayin'," Josh mutters. "No offense."
"None taken," I say. "I'm giving it, I don't know, maybe a month. Then it'll be getting old."

And another one — Kazuo Ishiguro, The remains of the day, 1989:

__And Mr Harry Smith himself seemed to lose all inhibitions, for now he leaned forward and continued:
__'That's what we fought Hitler for, after all. […] And it's one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you're rich or poor, you're born free and you're born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That's what dignity's really about, if you'll excuse me, sir.'
__'Now now, Harry,' Mr Taylor said. 'I can see yo're warming up to one of your political speeches.'
__This brought laughter. Mr Harry Smith smiled a little shyly, but went on:
__'I'm not talking politics. I'm just saying, that's all.'

Nancy Friedman asked about this phrase back in 2006:

I’m interested in the origins of “I’m just saying” used postpositively. (Also its variant: “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.”) An example: “Have you ever noticed how many people end statements with qualifiers? I’m just saying.” It seems to be an update of “With all due respect,” or perhaps something I’m not thinking of. Is it an East Coast expression? I’m from California and have never heard it in speech, but have noticed it frequently in blog titles and posts.

She got a large number of comments, including a reference to a Daily Show segment "CNN's Just Sayin'", 8/18/2009, noting that "CNN delivers the news like a 12-year-old girl in a new segment called, "Just Sayin'."

(It's interesting that deprecated phrases are stereotypically associated with the speech of girls — even adjacent to lists of very un-girlish examples, as here in Stewart's observation around the 1:48 mark that "I'm thinking that you're using the same phrase to discuss important issues that we use in Jersey to determine that someone's mom is a whore".)

But back to Bob's question: was this phrase  anachronistic in 1916?

It's not easy to tell, because the word sequence "just saying" has a lot of more literal uses. Some of them might be taken as infant versions of the idiom, representing a more complete form which the minimal "just sayin'" gesture evokes:

"Don't preach to me, Mrs. Methodist." […]
"Well, as to preaching, Master Leon, I'm just saying what's right, and I'll say that before anybody."

[Onesimus, Leon, or Old Paul's Treasure, 1854]

I would not encroach, Sir, on your valuable space, but I cannot help just saying, that it would in my opinion be a good thing for the country, if our Ministers would take example by the French, and summon in a woman to assist them in the Council-Chamber. [Letter to Punch from Xantippe Rose Sophia Sophonisba Smith, 1860]

I am not undertaking to say that that is wrong or the other is wrong, but I am just saying, asking you now why you stated that the old man said that all the money that was in there belonged to your mother and he gave it to her. [Foley v. Harrison, Supreme Court of Missouri, 2/28/1911.]

If we omit Bob's condition that say be "without an S or S-bar complement" , then some things like this may qualify, depending on how we interpret "stand alone".

But if we define the idiom to require that "I'm just saying" should lack a complement, and to be used following the perhaps-offensive remark or following an objection to it, then I haven't seen any clear examples from before WWII.


  1. Scott Kiesling said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    Hey I started looking at this in a paper last spring. I too had a hard time figuring out how to pull this apart, especially in its discourse-marker-ish use. But it's great data for talking about stancetaking! See: http://bit.ly/w1lcM4

  2. Mar Rojo said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    I've also heard "X, is all I'm saying" used in the same way.

  3. J. B. Arnes said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 9:17 am

    Whenever I hear someone say this, without the "I'm", I'm always reminded of this instant classic (in my mind anyways) from Gulf War II: http://www.rockpapersaddam.com/one.html

  4. John said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    I think a look at linguistic anachronism in Downton could be rather interesting. Lots of people have complained about use of the word "boyfriend", and a recent episode in which one character referred to her and her, well, boyfriend each "carrying a lot of luggage" (in the sense of emotional "baggage") rang pretty false.

  5. David L said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    MW11 dates 'boyfriend' to 1845.

  6. Russell said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    Shameless plug: Nothing in the origins of the phrase, but I did provide an analysis of "just saying", along with several other "say"-idioms (I was gonna say, I'll say, Says who?) in chapter 3 of my dissertation. (here). I mostly looked at Switchboard-style corpora, with a healthy dose of COCA. And I do agree, urban dictionary basically is spot-on.

  7. Bill Walsh said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    It was the subject of a Paul Reiser stand-up routine in maybe the late '80s.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    What does "S or S-bar complement" mean?

  9. Michael Cargal said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    It reminds me of the Southern American "bless his heart" to take away the sting of an insult, as in "He's a little simple, bless his heart."

  10. Janice Byer said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    The 2008 movie "Milk" is so faithful in its recreation of its 70s-era San Francisco setting (in which, by chance, I did then reside) that this exchange startled me:

    Harvey Milk: "We can have a revolution here."
    Cleve Jones: "I don't do losing."

    Am I mistaken in sensing 'Jones' demurral sounds more Gen X than flower child?

    'I don't do windows' is an old expression, true

  11. Kathryn said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    Janice Byer: I encountered "I don't do" in the mid to late 1980s in upstate New York: Middle school student to Principal "I don't do detention," reported to me by the principal. It struck me as a novel usage (which I then adopted for myself), but as I didn't have much direct contact with teenagers I don't know if it was common usage among them at the time.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    @Ellen K: S stands for sentence (clause really). In this case, the OP is talking about S as a complement, like "I don't believe [he's coming]", where the bracketed expression would be labelled S. S-bar (sometimes S') denotes a sentence with a complementizer like which or that (analyses differ on this–it's highly theory-bound). For example, "I don't believe [that [he's coming]]", where the constituent in the outer pair of brackets is an S', and it in turn contains a complementizer and an S.

    So basically, the OP means "I'm just saying" could have a sentential complement, with or without an overt complementizer.

  13. Russell said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    @Ellen K: To add to Rod's explanation, in most circumstances "say" requires something after it to indicate what was said (she said two words, she said "no", she said that something would happen). But in some expressions, like "(I'm) just saying", there's no need to put anything after "say." Thus Bob Moore's observation that it can occur "without an S or S-bar complement".

    (If what was "said" is understood as an indirect question, it can be left out: "I asked when she would request the funds, but she wouldn't say [when she would]." Most or all of the examples of "just saying" are not like this, however, making it more interesting.)

  14. James Enge said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    I nosed around a bit on Google Books and found some similar locutions.

    "No. Don't talk. I'm just saying things." (Kenton, "En Route", THE BOOKMAN, May 1904, p. 263)


    "May be it is, but you see I'm just saying what I think about it" (Harrison, "An Eager Class", TEXAS SCHOOL JOURNAL, Dec. 1889, p. 341)


    These don't lack complements, but the complements don't really add much content. It seems like this sort of expression could easily come out, in spoken contexts, with an ellipsis in place of the complement: "I'm just saying…" But the earliest example I could actually find of this is a tad later.

    "Oh, you know, I'm just saying… I wasn't scolding you." (Collette, THE GENTLE LIBERTINE, 1931)


    And by WWII the idiom seems to be pretty hard-edged.

    "I'm not complaining, Wilt, I'm just saying." (Boyle, MONDAY NIGHT, 1938, p. 91)


  15. Jason Crawford said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    The Onion used this in 2001:

    Area Woman Not Yelling At You, She's Just Saying

  16. Peter said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    I noticed myself using "I'm just sayin'" as a standalone phrase, usually when exclaiming something that frustrates me but that I can't do anything about. Like "Sucks being broke! I'm just sayin'." So one could add "frustrated resignation" to the definition list, since it doesn't fit the "defuse a situation" mold that the other definitions seem to carry.

  17. kenny said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 6:26 am

    Sean "Day9" Plott, the….most prominent person in the professional Starcraft II community (it's a thing, a huge thing) said once that whenever you say "just sayin'", what you should really be saying is "Oh my god, I am SO SORRY." (There are of course exceptions to this general guideline.)

    exempli gratia: "….I mean, it's not like you couldn't stand to lose a few pounds yourself. just sayin'."

  18. Pete said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    In The Wire (set in Baltimore), the characters used to say "I'm saying!" to mean the same thing. It struck me as odd but it cropped up so often I assumed it must be a feature of Baltimore speech.

  19. Mark Etherton said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    The OED distinguishes two meanings of 'boyfriend'.

    One "A boy who is a (close) friend; a boyhood friend" is described as now rare. The first quotation for the other meaning "A male with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship; a male partner or lover" is 1906, so plausible for Downton. (The first example of the equivalent sense of "girlfriend" is 1892.)

  20. Dave said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    "Xantippe Rose Sophia Sophonisba Smith"! I think I'm in love…

  21. JB said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 5:19 am

    Paraphrase: I'm just putting this out there for your consideration.
    I know someone who says, "I'm not sayin' – I'm just sayin'" – which I take to mean not necessarily asserting it but just bringing it up. Draw you own conclusions.

  22. Laura said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    I think I use this expression, mostly in writing (colloquial, usually on facebook and the like) but with a different use. It's a kind of joke, like 'see what I did there?' to indicate that you made a joke, you know it's not a very funny one but you think it's pretty clever and want to acknowledge that. I think it's something along the lines of 'See my clever subtle implication?'

    So for instance, if there was a discussion about how there's more biscuits left than normal, I might be able to say 'John hasn't been around much lately. Just sayin', with the obvious implication that John eats all the biscuits. I suppose it's a version of the defusing the situation use which kind of does the opposite – I do use it to (jokingly) create a situation.

    Also, I think the same people that get annoyed at people using hashtags to make explicit what 'should' be expressed in 'proper sentences' would also be annoyed at this. But maybe it's only me who uses it this way.

  23. JM said,

    January 24, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    What Kenny's example points to, like the usage in the Daily Show clip, is that this phrase is often used disingenuously. The first Urban Dictionary definition is misleading–the phrase doesn't simply remove "the offensiveness" of the offending statement. It pretends to, giving a sort of plausible deniability.

    In this usage, it reminds me a lot of "just asking questions," which turns up in similar situations (the speaker makes a statement he/she expects to be taken as offensive, then follows with cover-phrase.) If I remember correctly, this one got a lot of use during the ongoing questioning of Obama's birth certificate. (As in, 'I'm not saying the President isn't American, I'm just asking questions.') The function isn't exactly to make the statement inoffensive, but to distance the speaker from censure.

  24. Alan Shaw said,

    January 24, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

    Not for nothin', but "just sayin'" is often used ironically, indicating that the speaker really wants you to pay attention to his point #justSayin

  25. John Gray said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

    About the comment(s) that the phrase is used ironically or in a somewhat humorous vein;it immediately called to mind an illustration in a military paper I saw while deployed to Iraq in 2009-2010.The base paper ran a cartoon drawn by one of its staff ala Bill Mauldin,it showed two soldiers with their respective rifles,one a tall,muscular male was holding an M-4 carbine(shortened lighter-weight version of the M-16),next to him a somewhat diminutive female soldier carrying her weapon-the full size M-16.The caption was of course "I'm just saying".

  26. Steven Strauss said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    When every kid at the mall started saying "I'm just saying" it reminded me of a usage I remembered from maybe the late seventies or early eighties. I listened to a lot of stand up comedy as a kid, and I think I heard it a lot in monologues, when the comedian gets the uncomfortable thought in everybody's minds, and then says "I'm just saying…" and then implies that it's too unpleasant to say it again, and it's a new laugh on top of the other one. I would have called it an idiomatic expression back then. But not from conversation.

    Represent, on the other hand, I heard in locker room interviews first, later at awards shows.

  27. Bathrobe said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 8:16 am

    Is it possible that changing the tense would make a difference?

    Somehow "I was just saying" (used in a defensive or apologetic tone) sounds like something people might have used in the 70s, whereas "I'm just saying" sounds much more modern.

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