English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage

Just sayin’

Q: Do you have any comment as to why so many people add “Just sayin’ ” at the end of a comment, especially a nasty one? Is it just a little cutesy thing like kids’ saying “just kidding” after a snide remark?

 A: As you’ve noticed, the expression “Just sayin’ ” follows an irritating or annoying or otherwise unpleasant observation. The speaker seems to imply that simply adding “Just sayin’ ” makes everything all right.

Well, it doesn’t.

We briefly referred to this stand-alone expression in a post we wrote a year ago on a similar usage sometimes referred to as a “false front,” “wishwasher,” “but head,” or “lying qualifier.”

This is a qualifying statement that comes BEFORE an unwelcome remark. Examples are all too familiar: “Nothing personal, but …,”  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” “No offense, but….”

When someone opens a conversation that way, look out! What’s coming isn’t something you want to hear. The speaker is anticipating your response and trying to head it off at the beginning.

“Just sayin’ ” is the same kind of rhetorical device, but it comes at the other end, AFTER the bomb has landed. (We suggested in our post that it might be called “postcatalepsis.”)

An example would be “You really shouldn’t wear that color. It makes you look dead. Just sayin’.” The speaker seems to mean, “Don’t blame me—I’m merely stating the obvious.”

In 2009, a CNN news segment called “Just Sayin’ ” was widely criticized (notably by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.

In the segment, the anchor Carol Costello inserted the expression into the network’s coverage of a news event or important issue.  An example: “Are we too wired? Just sayin’.”

(CNN likes contemporary slang so much that it also initiated segments called “Are you Kidding Me?” and “What the …?”)

How old is the stand-alone expression “Just sayin’ ” or “I’m just saying”? (It sometimes appears with “only” instead of “just.”)

Well, it’s a difficult question to research, since so many literal examples get in the way. But the usage we’re talking about has a German cousin dating from at least as far back as the 19th century. And a longer version was known a century ago in Irish English. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “just saying” and “only saying” originated as clipped versions of fuller phrases that are used in the same way: “I was just saying,” “I am only saying,” etc.

The dictionary says these expressionsboth the originals and the shorter “just saying, only saying”are “used to indicate that a previous statement or assertion is not intended to be combative or provoking, or should not be taken too personally or seriously.”

It suggests a comparison with the German ich sag’ ja nur  (“I’m just sayin’ ”), which it dates from the “late 19th cent. or earlier.”

The dictionary’s first English example is from Juno and the Paycock (1925), by the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey: “Sure, I know—I was only sayin’.”

And this “just” version is also found in dialogue: “I’m not knocking. I’m just saying” (Tucker’s People, a 1943 novel by Ira Wolfert).

But the clipped versions are more recent. We’ve mentioned a few examples from the early 2000s. Oxford’s earliest is a quotation in an Illinois newspaper: “It’d be a hard pill for Boehner to swallow. … Just sayin’ ” (The Pantagraph, Bloomington, June 30, 2013.)

As we recently noted in a posting to our blog, “Just sayin’ ” was spotted in an episode of the period drama Downton Abbey.

That was clearly an anachronism, since the clipped version would have been “out of place in 1916,” according to the linguist Ben Zimmer.

Another linguist, Mark Liberman, has written on the Language Log that “I haven’t seen any clear examples from before WWII.”

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 12, 2022.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.