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”? This is a hard question to research, since so many literal examples get in the way. 

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 expression 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.”

By now, “Just sayin’” isn’t fresh anymore, if it ever was. Our guess is that it will fade away.

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