if I'm honest, to be honest, honestly!

Fellow American-linguist-in-Britain Chris Kim mentioned to me the British use of If I'm honest as a discourse-commentary-type idiom, where she would more naturally say To be honest. By 'discourse-commentary-type idiom', I mean: it's a set phrase that the speaker uses to indicate their stance with respect to what they're saying in the rest of the sentence. As in:
I think to be honest, like most people would be, he was extremely p***** off with the idea of being ill so soon after retiring! [Mirror.co.uk]
"It makes me a bit nervous, to be honest, and I am handling her with little gloves at the moment because I am not sure how far to push.”[Brendan Cole on Victoria Pendleton in The Telegraph]

I reckon I see about one production of it every year. Most of them, if I’m honest, aren’t great. But they keep being staged: audiences can’t seem to get enough of Greek tragedy.  [Natalie Haynes in The Independent]
I'd very much been 'out' as a former geographer. If I'm honest, I'd outed myself many years earlier. [comedian Rob Rouse]

There's also the variant with being:
I'm fairly happy being both English and British. I don't feel that I need to choose.
If I'm being honest, and with apologies to the other nations of this country, I think that's because I see the two identities as very much overlapping - the vast majority of British people are English, and being English and being British have very similar implications. [Comment on a Guardian article]
But if I'm being honest I had never thought about the spear tackle rules. [sporty person talking about a sporty thing in The Independent]
The I'm phrases are sometimes--much less often--found in the full form I am.

The examples above were all found through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). Wiktionary defines these phrases as equivalent, and frankly is offered as a synonym. But frankly doesn't sit quite right with me in all of the contexts. In the examples I've given, the first of each pair has the speaker/writer 'being honest' about something other than themselves. There, I might say frankly. In the second examples, they are admitting something about themselves. In those cases, I get a sense of 'I'm ashamed to say', not just 'frankly'. I tend to interpret the BrE ones with I as having more of this personal reading to it, but I'm not a native user of that form, so my intuitions may be off.

Chris is right that Americans say to be honest and not if I'm honest (though it is the name of a country album), but what's interesting is that the British seem to say all of these phrases more.

I searched for to be honest followed by a comma or a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period in order to avoid counting things like I asked you to be honest with me. This might slightly undercount British examples, because Brits are less apt to use commas after sentence pre-modifiers than Americans are, but oh well. (There are some false hits in the numbers with non-idiomatic use of these words, but not many.) The * in the other rows indicates that I've included numbers for I am and I'm. (Keep in mind that this is data from the web, so I expect 15-20% of the data to NOT be by people from the dialect in question.)

to be honest {,.} 2700 5483
if I *m honest 91 713
if I *m being honest 35 99

One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that--the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean. (English Spouse is not impressed with this explanation.)

But: against that hypothesis is the fact that one can kind of say the same thing with the simple adverb honestly, and that's more common as a word in AmE than BrE:

honestly 1860012307

Hidden in the honestly numbers are the use of Honestly! as an exclamation of exasperation--a word that English Spouse uses (it feels like) constantly. He says it when the child hasn't put her shoes on when asked, when Jeremy Hunt is on the radio, when he thinks we're going to be late because I can't find my sunglasses. It's not clear whether he's an easily exasperated man or whether he lives in an excruciatingly exasperating climate (i.e. in a house with me).

This is harder to check in a corpus, because corpora are not particularly rich in situations where children haven't put their shoes on after repeatedly being asked. Where one can find standalone Honestly! in GloWBE, it's hard to tell if it's an assurance of honesty or an exclamation of exasperation. There are cases that look like the Honestly of exasperation in both the American and British data, but the largest number are in the 'hard to tell without hearing the person' category:

Not the Honestly of Exasperation: It is for sure one of the MOST beautiful things I have ever read. Honestly! It is the gospel lived out in its purest form.  (GloWBE-US)
Probably the Honestly of Exasperation:
"Honestly! You can't REALLY expect me to believe that?" (GloWBE-US)
Could easily be read more than one way:
I just started laughing -- honestly! it's been 6+ months since we talked. (GloWBE-GB)
"Style not dynamic enough", the guy said. Honestly!!!  (GloWBE-US)
 'Yuck! Pass me the sick bag I want to vom!? Honestly!' (GloWBE-GB)

 So, this is the kind of thing that I can't tell whether:
(a) It's more common in British English than American
(b) It's not particularly more common in BrE (there's lots of individual variation), but I notice it more in BrE because my spouse (and his mother) are avid users of it.

Nevertheless, there are more standalone Honestly! in the British data than  in the American in GloWBE (86 v 52).


P.S. (the following day)
Commenters are doing a good job of specifying the connotations and contexts of these phrases, so do have/take a look!

One thing some commenters have mentioned is that some would like an adverb before honest in to be honest. Here's what the top 10 adverbs look like (just looking at the phrase followed by a comma):

The list stretches to 40 different adverbs, but many have just one or two hits. In total, with an adverb the AmE (287) & BrE (293) numbers are virtually the same, but as you can see, some adverbs are more nationalistic than others. (Who knew the British were so brutal?)

In related 'honesty' news, @grayspeeks on Twitter asked whether Americans use the expression (no,) I tell a lie when correcting themselves. The answer is 'no' (GloWBE has 22 in UK, 0 in US), but several US tweeters responded that they'd say that's a lie or no, I'm lying for the same thing. It's harder to give accurate numbers for these, because they could be used for other purposes--so I have to look at them with the no in front, and that creates more (punctuation) problems.  Doing that, no, I'm lying has 3 UK hits and 1 US, as does no, I lie. No, that's a lie has 2 UK hits and 1 US one. Those numbers are small enough that I can check by hand: there are no false hits.  Trying without the no gives more false hits than 'good' ones: e.g. people accusing others of lying for that's a lie or people lying down for I'm lying.  I'm not going to go through hundreds of examples to try to count whether AmE is saying these phrases more--just not with no--because there's just too much guesswork in judging them. So, it's not a clear picture, but the evidence we have has BrE using all the lie phrases more than AmE.

One that Americans do seem to use more is to tell (you) the truth , (thanks, Zouk Delors, in the comments). US hits = 366, UK = 188.  


  1. I feel like I hear "If I'm being honest" reasonably often enough (in Texas).

    But, to be perfectly honest, I can't say I've payed much attention to it. 😉

  2. Roger O'Keeffe18 August, 2016 17:54

    I don't know if he really said it a lot, but "To be perfectly frank and honest" was a catch phrase much used by comedians imitating Harold Wilson.

    The phrase was sufficient to trigger laughter on its own because the audience knew it would be followed by some grossly dishonest statement.

  3. I rarely seem to hear or say "if I'm honest" or "if I'm being honest", but if I was to use one of them it would be the former. "To be honest" or "in all honesty" slip off the tongue much easier. (BrE, north east England).

  4. I wonder if the spread of acronyms has any impact -- I see TBH a lot more often than IIBH, but I'm also American. (It'd be interesting to see if people's usage of the acronyms matches their long-form speech; I think I tend to use "to be perfectly frank" or "if I can be perfectly frank" as my own speech particles, but will use TBH in email.

  5. And what about making the sentiment into its own sentence ("I'll be honest with you. I think...."), which I hear a lot in the US midwest. Personally, I say "to be honest" if I say it at all.

  6. I would say "tbh" in a text chat environment, but "If I'm honest" I think in more formal writing or in dialog.

    After a quick bit of omphaloskepsis I suspect it's a sincerity marker, a warning there's no irony or sarcasm. It's not that we're (BrE folks that is) dishonest after all but we have been known to hide our emotions once or twice.

  7. The famous British politeness means that we aren't honest a lot of the time, hence the if I'm honest construction.

  8. I've noticed a recent increase in the marker. Increased frequency and increased length — tagged-on with you and often an intensifier such as perfectly or absolutely.

    Not so long ago, I would assign meanings to the expressions. (That is to say, this is what I would mean is I said them and what I would presume another speaker to mean.)

    X is the case to be honest = 'I must concede that X is the case, although it may go against the rest of my argument.'

    X is the case if I'm honest = 'I've never before said that X is the case, but now I come to think about it, I think it actually is.'

    or even the more literal meaning

    'I don't like to admit that X is the case, but it is.'

    A couple of years ago, I gave up reading as much into the expressions and took them to be simpler markers amounting to 'I've thought about it and this is what I think'.

    This past year, I've retreated further. I now read them as simpler still discourse marker, amounting to little more than pause-fillers with no more content than

    'I think'.

    Possibly with the sincerity marking that Eloise detects, but I'm not sure that's always present.

    Note the change if you insert an adverb such as brutally, allowing one to say

    To be brutally honest with you, my dear, I don't give a damn.

    By the way, do AmE speakers find it as natural to use honest is this related way?

    Is that your honest opinion?

    As for the noun-based in all honesty, I usually take it to mean 'without exaggeration'.

    Where I do buy Eloise's sincerity-marking suggestion is in the challenge

    Be honest, is X the case?

  9. I reckon I see about one production of it every year. Most of them, if I’m honest, aren’t great. But they keep being staged: audiences can’t seem to get enough of Greek tragedy. [Natalie Haynes in The Independent]

    Natalie Haynes is someone who chooses her words carefully.

    • I take her use of reckon to be 'roughly calculate'.

    • I take her if I'm honest to be a concession. The frequency of productions supports her argument that Greek tragedy is currently very popular. Their poor quality is a minor point which is less supportive of the argument

  10. I, a southern American, use all of these - including the only-mentioned-in-the-comments "to be perfectly honest" and "in all honesty".

  11. I think I'd (BrE, elderly, Southern) use "To be honest" more than I'd use "If I'm honest", but, to be honest, I am not sure how often I use either! Not something I'd ever thought about.

    But, do you know, what I instantly associated it with was your earlier post about "I'm not being funny, but...." I wonder why?

  12. It is for sure one of the MOST beautiful things I have ever read. Honestly! It is the gospel lived out in its purest form.

    I must say I find this strange. It would sound more natural (I speak only for myself) with Truly! or Really!

    It would sound even better as No, truly! or No, really!. And less strange as No, honestly!.

    Strange to say, I'd be just as happy with Yes, truly! or Yes, really! or even Yes, honestly!

    The point is that the affirming-the-truth adverb is (to my ears) a response to an implicit objection or query from the hearer.

  13. With respect to Honestly! as a marker of exasperation, I'm tempted to say that if it was ever common in spoken American English it no longer is. There's something a little Depression-Era movie dialogue about it as an exclamation, kind of like beginning a sentence with the word "Say", as in Say, what do you mean by barging in here? I also associate it with another Depression-era titan, the American "cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, and stage and motion picture actor" (according to Wikipedia) Will Rogers. Some 30 or 35 years ago the actor James Whitmore did a one-man show portraying Rogers and I can literally hear him beginning many of Rogers' lines of homespun humor with that very word, Honestly ...

  14. Mrs. Redboots: I had the same thought. It's tempting for me to say that BrE has more wordy discourse-comments than AmE, but that might just be because the BrE ones strike me. Without doing a truly comparative analysis that starts by reading a bunch of comparable dialogues from the two countries, I shouldn't try to come to such conclusions!

    Dick H (inter alia) : I asked the spouse whether he thought Americans say 'honestly' like he does, and his impression is that it's a very British thing he does.

  15. I (BrE) seem to remember using "Honestly!" as a marker of exasperation when I was a child 50-odd years ago (sometimes abbreviated to "Nistly"), but I never do so now.

  16. BrE - I still, occasionally, use "Honestly" as an exasperation marker. The times when I use "if I'm honest" are generally when I am re-considering something and realise that I could be more precise or accurate than I had been or I wish to state an opinion that may be disapproved of, abnormal. "If I'm honest, I've never understood why anyone would want to watch Tom Hanks."
    The implication is that otherwise I would accept the cultural norms and remain silent on my abnormal view.

  17. When people exclaim Honestly!, I hear it not as general exasperation but as exasperation with the hearer. More precisely with the addressee, who might be a notional hearer, or even the speaker being virtually harangued by himself/herself.

  18. There's also the response in BrE to a request for your opinion:

    'What's your job satisfaction like at the moment?'
    'Honestly? It's a bit mixed.'

    I think it's a marker for 'You may expect a superficial answer, but you are about receive the gift of a proper one.'

  19. After David's comments about what he expects when he hears "If I'm honest..." I scraped my mind for the last time I'd heard it. Which either says something about how sociable I am or my friends...

    But, by chance I overheard it twice today, and tone of voice seemed to play a huge difference in what I thought about it. Both the people saying it were people I knew, one of the targets was someone I know the speaker knew, the other I think wasn't but I'm not sure. For the first case, the speaker is possibly as sarcastic as I am in day-to-day speech, and it seemed like a sincerity marker. For the second, with names obscured to protect the guilty A was desperately trying to get a date with B and it came across to me like a fake-sincerity marker. Although since the conversation proceeded to setting a venue for an evening meal probably not to B! (Mind you, I've heard really corny pickup lines that work, so sometimes it just doesn't matter I guess.) The fact I don't like A might skew my reactions.

    So... David's thought it's just a filler I'm not sure I agree with, but as an average, it's probably a safe assumption.

  20. What about, "to tell [you] the truth ..."? I don't know about the US, but you hear this quite a lot here in England though, to be honest, it tends to arouse my suspicions about the speaker's veracity -- especially when said in the course of giving sworn testimony.

  21. Good one, Zouk! Combined with/without 'you' and with comma after, it's US 366 to UK 188. So there's one that Americans like. I might stick that in the P.S. as well.

  22. Eloise

    1. First a baseline type sentence

    If i'm honest, I didn't really think through the filler-or-not status of different wordings.

    This is a genuine ADMISSION.

    2. A more typical but still content-filled use is Natalie Hanes' quote

    Most of them, if I’m honest , aren’t great.

    I hear this as a CONCESSION pretending to be an ADMISSION. It can be re-phrased

    Admittedly, most of them aren't great.

    This doesn't word as well with the Bob Rouse quote

    Admittedly , I'd outed myself many years earlier.

    Perhaps it's an AFTERTHOUGHT pretending to be a CONCESSION pretending to be an ADMISSION.

    The point of my initial admission [1] is that I hadn't thought through to the conclusion that If I'm honest seems to keep at least some pretence of content. It's To be [ADVERB] honest with you that I keep hearing with practically no content whatsoever.

    By 'pretending' I don't mean 'lacking sincerity'. It's what linguists and philosophers call indirect speech acts. For example Were you born in a barn? is typically an indirect REQUEST or ORDER to close a door. By contrast Kill me then is almost certainly an insincere ORDER.

  23. AmE, East Coast here. Prefacing a remark with "to be honest" seems to be an indicator that a mildly unpleasant truth is about to come out. "To be honest, the movie wasn't all it was hyped up to be." A more colloquial phrase is "not gonna lie": "Not gonna lie, I'm dreading dinner with the in-laws."

  24. The exasperated use of "Honestly!" sounds very old-fashioned to me. I think more Americans (of my acquaintance anyway) would use "Really?!" ideally with the spoken equivalent of an interrobang.

  25. There is also "truth to tell"/"[if (the)] truth be told", but these sound old-fashioned/formal register to my ear at least. Wiktionary does have a (rather formal) 2008 citation though, from magazine. The phrase seems to me more impersonal than "to be honest" & co: more like it's a truth that's "out there", rather than a self-revalatory one.

  26. Time magazine (not too handy with html, to be honest).

  27. *revelatory*! (... or this 'ere spelling, apparently)

  28. User, I usually sat to be honest, or honestly. I hear Honestly A LOT! (Midwest/St. Louis, MO)

  29. Mind 14

    User, I usually sat to be honest, or honestly.

    What does this mean? When would yu say it?

  30. There is also "Honestly?!" which seems to be current in the US and is a narrower type of exasperation, namely disbelief at a ridiculous written or spoken statement. More often "Seriously?" and "Really?" if inflected properly.

  31. With all this talk about "Honestly?!" being comparable to "Really?!" I figured I might as well share the very first segment of Really!?! with Seth and Amy (2007) , which for a few years was an occasional routine on the Weekend Update newscast that's a regular part of the long-lived late-night American comedy show Saturday Night Live.

  32. There was a good example of the vanishing semantic content of to be honest in a vix-pop on the news programme The World at One today. The background is a sad case of a group of half a dozen friends who went to the seaside and were swept away and drowned. A day later a holidaying father called Mohammed was among those interviewed.

    "From the day before yesterday,
    I noticed, you know, how quick the tide, how quick the water come up, how quick the tide come in.
    I had my two kids in there, so I just decided to come out, just for our own safety, to be honest.
    Then we seen the helicopters come up. it was quite apparent something wasn’t quite right.
    We really didn’t know, to be honest, er what was going on."

    If you have access to the BBC Radio I-Player, you can hear him here (click) from 14:02/44:59.


  33. And on The Great British Bake Off Candace said of her genoese sponge:

    'I don't enjoy making it. It's a little bit temperamental, if I'm honest.'

  34. I think one of the reasons it's more frequently found in British English is the need for courtesy. It's almost an apology in many cases. "My ethical quandary is the choice between honesty and courtesy, and though I might prefer the latter, here's what I need to say if I'm choosing the former." Perhaps Brits are socialized to be appear to be more courteous (hence the need for a qualifier when appearing to be discourteous), while Americans are socialized to be appear to be more honest (hence the greater willingness to state an uncomfortable fact with no qualifier).

  35. I am reminded of something that happened whilst I was attending a science fiction convention in the US a few years ago. I found myself talking to an author whose books I had read.

    "I have to admit, I enjoyed your books," I said.

    "Why do you have to admit it?" she replied.

    I explained I was English, and that's the way we speak, but when I stopped to examine the phrase, it is rather odd.

  36. My English spouse is the master of "I have to say...". I tend to reply "Oh do you, now?" But then I noticed that I say it too. Looking at the internet numbers, it doesn't seem to be either British or American, but it's very possibly used much more by some individuals than others...

  37. My English spouse is the master of "I have to say...".

    Lynne: with reference to Paul Dormer's comment immediately preceding yours, did you actually mean to write "I have to admit ..." instead of "I have to say ..."?

    Certainly Dormer's comment to the author would have sounded quite different (to me, at least) if he'd said "I have to say I enjoyed your books." I also doubt the author would have responded by remarking "Why do you have to say it?"

  38. No, I meant what I said. To me, they seem related. Why preface what you're saying with a hard-to-believe announcement that you are compelled to say it?

  39. I think these are to alert the listener (whether genuinely honestly or not) that the speaker is about to be candid and direct, where native BrE speakers would normally be attuned to indirect/disguised expressions of meaning, which may well be very different from the surface meaning of the words used.

    You could also see "Honestly!" in the same light, although the candid and direct statement of feeling it might have been about to precede is simply allowed to be assumed, and is unspoken.

  40. I've been thinking along the same lines as Autolycus — except that I don't think there's any conscious thinking involved. So I wouldn't use a word like alert for the speech act involved.

    I have a fuzzy recollection of what Lynne has said in the past about British discourse being more indirect than American. This makes sense to me if expressed in terms of etiquette. Not prescribed etiquette but instinctive feelings as to what is socially acceptable.

    Perhaps it's part of a bigger feature — the 'face-saving' principle that pragmatists say underlies politeness. Perhaps the added honesty, to be honest, if I'm honest, I must admit, I have to say serve to mitigate assertions is the same way that please, I wonder if you could mitigate commands.

    There are rational reasons for mitigating commands. Nobody likes to be bossed around by speakers without authority. It's less clear why we choose to mitigate assertions. OK, some people suffer a constant lack of confidence, but assertion-avoidance seems to be too common to be explained this way. My hunch his that we Brits unthinkingly recognise some speech situations as platforms and others as meetings of minds. In a platform setting we feel no social constraints on 'speaking our mind'. In meeting-of-minds setting there's an underlying imperative to keep one's hearers at ease.

    'Small talk' is the basic example of meeting-of-minds discourse. Typically it works by selection. If we have strong views and clear perspectives, we generally feel more comfortable in not expressing them. This is OK because small talk is essentially aimless in its content. But other meetings-of-minds settings do have an aim, one that can only be realised by exchanging information or opinions. Selection is not an option, so we represent our assertions as unavoidable necessities.

    As I see it, we use please, I wonder if you could etc judiciously. We comfortable use imperatives in speech acts that are no threat to 'face' e.g. Put it there, Tell me... have one of mine etc. But we scatter these honestly etc markers at random, so that they can attach to assertions that are totally 'face'-neutral such as I enjoyed your books. Somehow the untarget(t)ed deployment of these disclaimers makes us feel that we're not 'bigmouths' rocking the social boat.

  41. I am reminded of my father's joke, of the small boy who went out to lunch and was told, by his mother before he went, to praise his hostess' cooking.

    "I must say, Mrs Bloggs, this is very good!"
    "Oh, do you really think so?"
    "Well, no - but I must say so!"

    To the extent that "I must say" has become family code for "This next statement is untrue", which I stress again is family code and not how it is generally used.

    As for "Honestly!" I think our American friends may be misunderstanding how it is used in the UK - not as an emphasis on truth, but an expression of exasperation: "Honestly, darling, couldn't you even have done the washing-up while I was out?"

  42. Lynne said:

    No, I meant what I said. To me, they seem related. Why preface what you're saying with a hard-to-believe announcement that you are compelled to say it?

    Aren't expressions like "I have to admit" or "I have to say" simply examples of pleonasms? It seems to me you covered these linguistic redundancies in a previous post.

    However much these phrases may be seen either as social grace notes or as ridiculous superfluities they also work to announce that an opinion is on the way. It seems to me they're the verbal equivalent of clearing your throat.

  43. Frankly, I can vividly imagine David Crosbie writing, "Although I only watched The Great British Bake-off for research purposes, I have to admit I quite enjoyed it." -- with the same implication as in the (non-imaginary) sci-fi example: perhaps suggesting that the genre really should be beneath him.

    David, I hope this is not rude to you (or the sci-fi author and fan); I did say "frankly" (non-pleonastically) first.

    Full disclosure: I actually love sci-fi (short stories in particular), but have never watched the Bake-Off.

  44. In my case, it was not so much that I might think the genre was beneath me, rather that others might think that of me.

    To give details, the author was Seanan Mcguire, who writes a series of books about a young woman who fights monsters in New York city whilst trying to make a name as a competitive ballroom dancer. The books are obviously influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am a sixty-something male, perhaps not perceived as part of her target audience.

  45. Zouk Delors

    I love the Great British Bake Off. I foolishly missed the first half of it on Wednesday so I just had to see it on the iPlayer. And having started, i watched the second half again. Just as well, because I hadn't noticed Candace's if I'm honest the first time round.

    Personally, I confine I have to admit to making points which don't support my argument or stated position, but are worth making anyway. I don't think I could say I have to admit I enjoyed your books, but I could conceivably say I must say i enjoyed your books.

    Frankly is different again. I use it like Rhett Butler to mean 'This isn't what you want to hear but I'm going to say it anyway'.

  46. Paul

    Apologies if I misinterpreted your words. As for the book, I must admit I'm not tempted to go out and buy it, despite (because of?)the similarity of our demographic profiles.

  47. David

    Each to his own; I think I will continue not to watch it, but then, I have a bit of a "thing" about sugar. I do like smutty* jokes, though!

    Yes, I think the "frankly" here was partly an artificial attempt to introduce a further phrase in the semantic category; I probably wouldn't have used it there normally.

    *Is this word Am as well as Br?

  48. Smutty, yes, at least enough to know what you're talking about, but (at least for my my part of the US and my generation) I'd be more more likely to say dirty jokes or off-color jokes.

    Perhaps food for another column if it hasn't been covered already?

  49. In my case, it was not so much that I might think the genre was beneath me, rather that others might think that of me.

    In other words, Paul, your love of Seanan McGuire's novels falls into the category of guilty pleasure.

    I appreciate your honesty! And quite seriously, it puts your original comment to her, "I have to admit, I enjoyed your books", in a whole new light.

    I suppose it's possible that Ms. McGuire is unaware that as a reader of her work you don't fall into what you referred to as the "target audience." If not, she might well have been brought up short by what she took to be a backhanded compliment. Alternatively, if you were the first 60-something Briton to approach her at this science fiction convention she might have realized what you were driving at -- and cut you some slack.

    Or perhaps she was just engaging in the slightly mean-spirited act of serious kidding.

  50. Zouk, Dark Star

    It's hard to compare like with like. I don't think smutty jokes is particularly common in British English either.

    Now Mel and Sue's humour on Bake Off doesn't really consist of jokes. A typical item seizes spontaneously (or pretends to seize spontaneously) on a word or phrase which just might have an unintended sexual connotation. It's playful and (apparently) uncrafted and needn't suggest anything sexual — provided that it sounds rude. The one everybody everybody remembers is soggy bottom. The whole thing is childish, or rather a clever simulation of children's humour.

    All the usual words for this sort of humour (as opposed to jokes) are foreign: innuendo, double entenre, risqué . When the innuendo points to an inescapable sexual meaning, as in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, it's possible to use the word filth. The late lamented Chairman Humph was describe as a 'purveyor of blue chip filth to Middle England'. Mel and Sue's innuendo is so loosely targeted as to sound almost innocent. Filth is too strong a description, so it's described as smut.

  51. David

    I did check out smutty briefly after(!) raising the question and my dilatory research suggested:
    a) Usage fell off sharply around 2006
    b) It's probably much more Br than Am. I saw raunchy given as an Am equivalent, but that seems a bit strong for Mel and Sue's playful language (or what I've gleaned of it from media mentions).

    I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is probably my favourite radio program. If it weren't already such an old joke, innuendo might certainly be defined in the Uxbridge (sic) English Dictionary as "an Italian suppository"*.

    Finbar Saunders is, of course, yer man for double entendres.

    *Also, a girl walked into a bar an asked the barman for an innuendo ... so he gave her one!

  52. Sorry, Finbar link should be:


  53. I've just heard Marcus Brigstock say, on BBC R4's Just a Minute (ser. 76, ep. 4 @9'42"), "What the [Edinburgh] Fringe Festival means to me, frankly, is: the world" , which doesn't fit the theory that frankly introduces unwelcome truths, as in "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn".

    Incidentally, in what I hope is not an unwelcome further digression, I've always wondered about Clarke Gable's intonation of that sentence (Youtube here), as I've always othetwise heard the expression with the emphasis on the last word. Is this an Am thing or just a one-off?

  54. No, Zouk, it doesn't disprove my point that frankly introduces unwelcome truths. He didn't say Frankly, what the Edinburgh Fringe means to me is the world.

    His frankly differs from the introductory frankly in both in position and intonation. I think it was

    What the Edinburgh Fringe means to ↘ME ↗FRANKLY is the ↘WORLD

    Of course, i could well be wrong, but what Marcus actually said doesn't prove it.

    I heard somewhere that the studio insisted on shifting the intonation from ↘DAMN to ↘GIVE. This may or may not be true

  55. "His frankly differs"

    Fair point.

    "the studio insisted on shifting the intonation"

    Sounds plausible.

  56. Two thoughts from a British person.

    1. When I use the phrase 'to be honest' I'm accruing thinking time as to decide whether to be brutal,sugar coat or avoid being honest at all out of politeness.

    'what did you think of my new boyfriend?'

    'To be honest I think (he's not good enough for you), (he's interesting, but I can't really see the appeal), (I've not spent long enough with him to form an opinion)'

    2. I did jury service many years ago. Halfway through his testimony the defendant said, "To be perfectly honest," as a preface to an answer. 3 female jurors picked up on it, and the implication that he hadn't been honest before that 3 point. Led to an interesting discussion in the jury room!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)