What Does Hem and Haw Mean?

Hem and Haw Meaning

Definition: To hesitate to give a definite answer.

Origin of Hem and Haw

This expression first became popular in the latter half of the 1700s. One of its early uses comes from Jonathan Swift’s 1728 poem “My Lady’s Lamentation.”

  • He haws and he hums. At last out it comes.

It comes from the separate definitions of hem and haw.

Hem comes from the late 1400s and means to clear one’s throat to get someone’s attention. A person can do this in a polite way or a rude way. If a person wants to be extra polite they can actually say the word ahem. People also make a hemming sound when hesitating because they don’t want to answer a question directly.

Haw is similar, and is a sound of hesitation. This word dates back to the 1600s.

A person can hem and haw in two main ways. One way is to say many things in order to avoid answering a question. The other way is to makes sounds of hesitation such as, um, er, or uh.

Examples of Hem and Haw

hemming and hawing meaning In this example, a man uses the expression while talking to his friend about her new outfit.

Rodrigo: Hi, Alisha!

Alisha: Hi! What do you think of my new shoes? They have live goldfish in the platform heels.

Rodrigo: Oh, well, er…That is to say, ahem. Um. What can one say about something like that? I mean…

Alisha: Enough! You can stop hemming and hawing. I can tell you hate them.

hem and haw origin In the example below, two friends are discussing the food that one of them made.

Luis: You’ve hardly touched the soup that I cooked for you! Don’t you like it?

Stephanie: Oh, uh, well, it’s hard to say, exactly. I often like soup, but, ummm, is this really soup? I think you are always a good cook, but, uh, maybe I won’t eat much more of this particular dish, because, um…

Luis: Okay, I get it. You can just be honest with me. It’s not necessary to hem and haw like a fool.

More Examples

This excerpt is from a sports journalist asking an athlete a question. When he hesitated and avoided answering, she made him answer directly.

Apple asked Nelson Figueroa if the Mets letting Matt Harvey pitch Monday is the right decision?

Figgie didn’t exactly hem and haw, but did gloss over the question.

“I ask again,” a slightly agitated Apple said. “Do you think it was the right decision.”

Figueroa answered directly. –New York Daily News

This excerpt is about the governor of New York, and how likely will make a quick decision on whether or not to become a presidential candidate.

  • Will Andrew Cuomo ever run for President? Having seen his father’s Hamlet act up close, it’s unlikely he’ll hem and haw for long. –New York Daily News


The phrase hem and haw means to make hesitation sounds, or simply to hesitate, to avoid answering a question or making a decision.