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Close up of the face of Michelangelo's David to illustrate the blog post "What we say when we say 'just sayin'" by Edwin Battistella on the OUP blog

What we say when we say “just sayin’”

Remember those Florida parents who objected to their children seeing a picture of Michelangelo’s David. A friend of mine reposted a meme noting that the objecting Floridians “would have been considered backwards and ignorant in 1504.” My friend added his own just sayin’…  

It started me wondering what we mean when we say just sayin’.

I looked at more posts: An art gallery opening reminded people that “the show is actually already hung, and the gallery will be open today… just sayin’…!” In the 2011 film Redemption: For Robbing The Dead, actor Larry Thomas tells another character: “If you want any friends in this town, you’ll get that ghoul shot… Just sayin’.” When Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid, he sandwiched his claim that China influenced the 2020 election between Many people think and just sayin’: “Many people think that… China played a very active role in the 2020 election. Just saying, just saying.”

The expression just sayin’ has been around for a while but saw a sharp rise in use in the 1990s, when the phrase became popularized by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Paul Reiser. By 2011, the expression was feeling tired and even made it on the list of so-called Banished Words produced by Lake Superior State University. The list-makers use “banished” somewhat imprecisely to refer to expressions they consider “overworked, redundant, oxymoronic, clichéd, illogical, nonsensical—and otherwise ineffective, baffling, or irritating.” 

But just sayin’ had legs. It’s even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes it as “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.” The Urban Dictionary defines it simply as “A phrase used to defuse any ill feelings caused by a preceded remark.”  

There’s more to it than that, I think. Just sayin’, like other catchphrases and neologisms, hasn’t stood still. It’s been commodified (as the heading for opinion pages and the title of books) and made into a hashtag. And its meaning has broadened beyond the OED and Urban Dictionary glosses. Take a look at the examples again: 

Floridians objecting to Michelangelo’s David “would have been considered backwards and ignorant in 1504.” Here just sayin’ agrees with and echoes the sentiment. It reinforces the jab at those parents.  

The artist’s comment that “the show is actually already hung, and the gallery will be open today” uses just sayin’ as a call to action to come by the gallery and see the show.  

Donald Trump’s “Many people think that… China played a very active role in the 2020 election. Just saying, just saying” employs the phrase as a trick to assert something without being responsible for its truth. 

Similarly the line from Redemption—“If you want any friends in this town, you’ll get that ghoul shot… Just sayin’”—tells the bounty hunter that he should kill the grave-robber. But the just sayin’ is an escape clause for the speaker. He is ostensibly offering advice, but really suggesting murder.  

And of course, it is still possible to find examples where a speaker has said something harsh and is trying some verbal judo. Here are a couple of examples that linguist Laurel Brinton culled from the 100-million-word corpus of American soap opera transcripts. (Yes, there is a corpus of soap opera transcripts).

… you’re not the best cook. I’m just saying.

(from The Young and the Restless)

… you’re not the most excitin’ man I ever met. Just sayin’.

(from General Hospital)

Linguists who have studied just sayin’ and similar expressions have shed light on what is going on. Scott Kiesling has noted that just sayin’ is especially useful in social media situations where there is less context for what is said and thus more opportunity for misunderstanding. He treats the functions of just sayin’ as lowering one’s investment in the implications of a claim. And Kiesling explains how such stancetaking can create positive evaluation in some cases and lower disagreement in others. 

In her book The Evolution of Pragmatic Markers in English, Laurel Brinton distinguished 10 different ways that just sayin’ can be used “to undercut the force” of something: when a speaker is (1) saying something rude, or (2) anticipating disagreement or (3) a negative response to a suggestion; when a speaker is (4) claiming something controversial, (5) contradicting another person, or (6) responding to a negative reaction or (7) disagreement; and when a speaker is (8) attempting to be non-threatening or (9) non-committal or (10) is expressing hesitation. Whew.

So the next time someone you know says just sayin’, you might want to ask them what they mean.

Featured image by Rowan Simpson via Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Aru Hito

    “And Kiesling explains how such stancetaking can creating positive evaluation in some cases”

    “can creating”??

  2. OUPblog team

    Hi Aru, thank you for bringing this typo to our attention. It has now been corrected. Kind regards, the OUPblog team

  3. Philip Heath

    But whence ‘stancetaking’? Stances are surely adopted rather than ‘taken’, are they not? (Just saying ….)

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