- (an utterance resembling a slight clearing of the throat, used to attract attention, express doubt, etc.)
- the utterance or sound of “hem.”
- a sound or pause of hesitation: His sermon was full of hems and haws.
- to utter the sound “hem.”
- to hesitate in speaking.
- hem and haw,
- to hesitate or falter: She hemmed and hawed a lot before she came to the point.
- to speak noncommittally; avoid giving a direct answer: He hems and haws and comes out on both sides of every question.
Origin of hem2
- an edge to a piece of cloth, made by folding the raw edge under and stitching it down
- short for hemline
- to provide with a hem
- (usually foll by in, around, or about) to enclose or confine
Word Origin for hem
- a representation of the sound of clearing the throat, used to gain attention, express hesitation, etc
- (intr) to utter this sound
- hem and haw or hum and haw to hesitate in speaking or in making a decision
late 14c., "to provide (something) with a border or fringe" (surname Hemmer attested from c.1300), from hem (n.). Related: Hemmed; hemming. The phrase hem in "shut in, confine," first recorded 1530s.
Old English hem "a border," especially of cloth or a garment, from Proto-Germanic *hamjam (cf. Old Norse hemja "to bridle, curb," Swedish hämma "to stop, restrain," Old Frisian hemma "to hinder," Middle Dutch, German hemmen "to hem in, stop, hinder"), from PIE *kem- "to compress." Apparently the same root yielded Old English hamm, common in place names (where it means "enclosure, land hemmed in by water or high ground, land in a river bend"). In Middle English, hem also was a symbol of pride or ostentation.
If þei wer þe first þat schuld puplysch þese grete myracles of her mayster, men myth sey of hem, as Crist ded of þe Pharisees, þat þei magnified her owne hemmys. [John Capgrave, "Life of Saint Gilbert of Sempringham," 1451]
late 15c., probably imitative of the sound of clearing the throat. Hem and haw first recorded 1786, from haw "hesitation" (1630s; see haw (v.)); hem and hawk attested from 1570s.
hem and haw
Be hesitant and indecisive; avoid committing oneself, as in When asked about their wedding date, she hemmed and hawed, or The President hemmed and hawed about new Cabinet appointments. This expression imitates the sounds of clearing one's throat. [Late 1700s]