Hear, hear!

Shut up your face.

Dear Word Detective: Logically an energetic response to a well received comment or speech should be “Hear, Hear,” as in “I hear you.” In books and on the net all I see is “Here, Here.” Does this phrase mean “Now that you’re here we have to listen to you” or something of a similar nature? — Mike Henderson.

No, but that’s an interesting idea. So if you manage to fight your way past the guards and the alligators and the Pendulum of Death and make it into the Fortress of Power, the Grand Poobah has to give you ten minutes? Speaking as one whose participation in public meetings usually concludes with people shouting “Cut his mic!”, I totally support this idea. First come, first talk and talk and talk.

Speaking of “the net,” I vividly remember people arguing about this question on Usenet back in the early 1990s. (Usenet being what preceded the web, Twitter, Facebook, and the Great Decline of Everything.) People spent days, weeks, years arguing over stuff like this because, I kid you not, the net was all text in a terminal, no pictures. It was awesome.

Anyway, the phrase is “Hear, Hear!”, and it is best known for its use, dating back to the late 17th century, in Britain’s Parliament. The original form was “Hear him!”, and it was used to draw attention to, and by implication to endorse, a speaker’s words. The form “Hear hear!” arose in the late 18th century and is now the usual cheer (“One Noble Lord or Honorable Member asking a question, and another Noble Lord or Honorable Member endeavoring to dodge it, amid cries of Hear! Hear!” 1865). The fact that “hear” and “here” are homophones (words pronounced the same) accounts for the common confusion over the phrase, especially since it’s rarely seen in print.

Although usually used to express agreement with a speaker, “Hear hear!” in Parliament also lends itself, via emphasis, timing and intonation, to expressing contempt, opposition, derision and a range of more obscure emotions. C-Span in the US broadcasts the Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons on Sunday nights, where the “Hear hear!” phenomenon can be seen in the wild, so to speak. If you’d prefer something with a bit more plot, much of the action in the British version of the TV serial House of Cards (vastly superior to the US version and available on Netflix) takes place at Question Time.

Outside of Parliament (which, of course, most of us are) “Hear, hear!” is used to indicate endorsement of, and enthusiasm for, something someone just said, especially if those present agree that it “needed saying.”

Elsewhere in the world of strange things shouted in large rooms, we have the curious word “oyez,” traditionally called out three times (“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”) by the Marshal of the US Supreme Court at the opening of each court session. (It’s also used a some lower US courts and many courts in the UK.) “Oyez” is an Anglo-Norman word, the imperative plural form of “oir” (to hear), meaning essentially “Listen up, y’all.” It was also the traditional call of the Town Crier in Olde England (and dramatic recreations thereof), commanding attention to important news or edicts. “Oyez” is usually pronounced as spelled (oy-yez), with stress on the second syllable, but it’s sometime said as “Oyes,” which can be misinterpreted as “Oh yes!”

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