Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Believe you me...

Say you what? You may or may not have heard of "believe you me", which is today's Milwaukee Word of the Day. I have heard this plenty of times, but maybe that's because I'm from Wisconsin.

Rather than thinking of this bizarre syntax as improper, informal, or simply a regional anomaly, consider its historical origin:

Michael Quinion from World Wide Words, who writes on international English from his own British perspective, traces this verb-subject-object word order back to the 1611 version of the King James Bible. He finds many passages in which a person said something to the tune of "hear ye me" when someone wanted to emphasis a point.

Quinion also notes that the specific phrase of "believe you me" is a rather modern one in America, showing up in writing for the first time in 1919.

What remains unclear is how widespread this usage is currently in the United States. Again, people still use it in Wisconsin to preface an important statement, but where else does this phrase show up? I'm interested to hear your comments...inform you us :)


jjmcgaffey said...

I've used the phrase for years, but have no idea where I picked it up. My father's from Michigan, my mother from New Jersey, I lived in Virginia for most of my time in the States but grew up traveling all around the world with friends from all over (all over the US, plenty of Brits, etc). I also read a lot and could have picked it up from a story. Not really helpful, but here's one person who has never lived in Wisconsin who uses the phrase regularly.

City Dictionary said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I fully expect this to be a phrase existent in many parts of the English-speaking world. What's difficult to determine is where it's common and where it used by a select few as a matter of personal style. I just got this comment on Twitter that verifies its usage in Texas.

What makes it valid for the Milwaukee Dictionary is its perceived above-average frequency of use there. Being from Wisconsin myself, it seems appropriate to me. In your case, it sounds a bit more ambiguous whether any of those places you mention have an affinity for this type of syntax.

Again, thanks. I'll update here if I find out anything more on the subject.


Anonymous said...

I'm from Boston; grew up in the 1940s and 50s. My father's Irish-American (his parents from Ireland). I've always thought of this as as an old-fashioned imperative: go ye, repentest thou, etc.

Ray Girvan said...

I've just been following this up with Google Books - see Believe you me - and strongly suspect an Irish origin for this particular phrase. The majority of early occurrences in print found by Google Books are in Irish publications.

Anonymous said...

I have used this phrase my whole life. I am from New Orleans and my husband, who is from Baton Rouge, laughs at me every time it slips out of my mouth. I said it this morning thus trying to find out where it came from brought me to the internet. I am 29 years old. I was raised with my grandmother and her sister living next door. Maybe I picked it up from them but not really sure. New Orleans is a melting pot of cultures.

LillyWhite said...

It's used in Australia also