“Have a Quiet Word” with someone

Some time ago–never mind how long exactly–my colleague Dawn Fallik suggested I do a post on “have a quiet word with,” which, she explained, was  Britishism meaning to scream at remonstrate someone in private. I looked at her with elevated eyebrows, having never heard of such a thing. But over the months I have come to understand that it’s a solid Britishism.

I was roused into action a couple of nights ago watching Olympics soccer, when, after a miscue (British) announcer Arlo White commented, “Abby Wambach is going to have a quiet word with her about that.”

Also in the world of sport, the expression came up last year when (Australian) caddie Steve Williams apparently gave an interview that deflected too much attention from his employer, (Australian) golfer Adam Scott. The New York Times reported:

“The calmest reaction of the day belonged to the always-unruffled Scott, who laughed Tuesday when asked if he had had a  ‘quiet word’ with Williams about his televised interview and said: ”You know, having a quiet word with Steve is not very easy. He’s a big guy, you know.”

Quiet word shows up frequently in U.K. sources, way back to around the turn of the twentieth century. The other Times, the one in London, commented in 1908 that one of the duties of officers in the Metropolitan Police is to offer “a quiet word to one who suspected if complicity in some offence but who has not yet embarked in a life of crime.”

But is it a NOOB? Not quite yet. Only a couple of hits come up:

“At the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in August 2009, Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley pulled President Obama aside for a quiet word. It was a sign of things to come: the first failure of the president to understand the moral dimensions of his health-care proposal.” (Washington Post, June 30, 2012)

“[Penn State administrators had] thought about telling someone who could actually do something about evidence that [Jerry] Sandusky had raped a child in a locker-room shower, but, after Curley conveyed Paterno’s doubts, “humane” is what they told each other it would be if they had a quiet word with Sandusky instead.” (New Yorker, July 18, 2012)

Then there’s this comment on a CBS News blog, which is inadmissible because you can’t tell if the commenter is American:

Very interesting how CBS, last evening had the article headline: “Pregnant Pa. woman, baby killed by lightning” Today, the article was re-written, with a new more P.C. headline: “Pregnant Amish woman, fetus killed by lightning” The liberal editor had a quiet word with last night’s reporter.

In any case, quiet word is officially on the radar. Thanks, Dawnie.

29 thoughts on ““Have a Quiet Word” with someone

  1. So funny. I was just wondering a couple of days when you’d right about this. Though I would also say that “have a word” without the “quiet” which is more common here in the UK might be also hitting radar (if not already) very soon.

  2. I’ve never heard “have a quiet word with” used as a euphemism for shouting at someone in private.
    Having a quiet word with some one is to tell them something or give them some possibly pointed, or stern advice without causing them embarrassment or letting anyone else know . The phrase is a literal description.

    1. Sometimes it *is* used to mean to bollock someone in private. It’s not a euphemism, as such; it’s “litotes” – the opposite of hyperbole. It’s a rhetorical technique of understatement- and very Brit. E.g. referring to the Atlantic as “The Pond” and Everest as “The Hill”.

      Someone once said that if you want to grasp the essential difference between the English and French characters, you need to consider the case of two people who arrive late for a dinner party- the Englishman because the roof has blown off his house, and the Frenchman because he has mistaken the date.

      The Englishman will apologise for lateness, which he will put down to “A small domestic problem” – the Frenchman will regale everyone with tales of his “Extraordinary adventure.”

  3. I think there’s also a matter of status. A boss will “have a quiet word” with someone who’s underperforming, rather than dressing him down in public. If the underling wanted to bring something up in private with the boss, the phrase would not be used.

  4. I would opt for “have a word with” as the more prevalent phrase, both here and in the UK. Of course, I could be wrong, inspiring someone to want to have a quiet word with me about the subject.

  5. I’m with Liam and Tim. I’ve always understood “a quiet word” to be equivalent to “a private word,” such as when, as mentioned, a boss is dressing down a subordinate, or when an elder is berating a youth for bad behavior in polite society, typically stern talk in either case; but I never knew there was shouting involved.

  6. If I really want the other party, say my husband, a child, or a close friend, to hear what I’m saying, I use the quiet word approach. It helps drain the emotion and confrontation from the moment reducing defensiveness and raising the prospect of my message-content penetration.
    Once you raise your voice you’ve diminished the potential positive impact of your words.

  7. How about a post on the phrase I read in old British novels, “safe as houses”. Not a chance anyone in the US will be using it in the near future, but maybe one day.

  8. I wonder whether ‘a quiet word’ is a distant cousin of ‘a gentle reminder’, which I get often from UK and international colleagues in my email inbox. Or maybe I should just stop wondering and respond to their query in the first instance?

    1. “Discreet” – private, low-key, hidden
      “Discrete” – separate, not continuous.

      Just sayin’

      I’ll take my pedant’s hat off now. 🙂

  9. It’s hard to differentiate (in writing, without contextual clues) between the literal meaning of taking someone aside to have a word with them in private, and the meaning that implies physical violence, getting the sack, etc. (in a comic way, usually…). So the Metropolitan Police example is probably literal, and means that they’ll privately give young whippersnappers a gentle warning. But given the right tone, expression and so on, it could mean that the police take them outside and duff them up to deter them from further criminal activity.

  10. And now we have the “interview without coffee” to which Prince Harry Windsor and his dangly bits will be subjected by his commanding officers…quiet, perhaps, but definitely unpleasant.

    1. Also known as a “bonc” – “beret on, no coffee”. And, of course, in our smutty way we find it humorous that it sounds the same as “bonk”.

      Which means nothing if “bonk” hasn’t crossed the water. 🙂

  11. There are, in my opinion, two senses of a quiet word. One is fairly literal: a private telling off, but actually quiet. The other is an ironic usage, as in the classic British habit of understatement, and will be a full-on bollocking, easily heard two rooms away; or, as noted in the Metropolitan Police example above, involving a certain physical dimension.

    1. I quite agree with this distinction. A recent example is that someone on the BBC, probably political editor Nick Robinson, reported that David Cameron is said to have had ‘a quiet word’ with Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell about Mitchell’s disagreement with the police guarding Downing Street. Quite clearly, the meeting was anything but quiet.

      There seem to be a couple of intermediate grades too – ‘having a word with’ someone is quite neutral, but to ‘have words’ about a subject implies that things may have got a bit heated.

  12. ‘…..watching Olympics soccer, when, after a miscue….’ Miscue? I’m British, and a soccer* fan, and have never come across the word ‘miscue’ in reference to the beautiful game. Somewhat ironic that it’s on a blog about Britishisms!

    *Football, obviously.

  13. The italicised comment you quote was definitely written by an American. No-one in Britain would ever use the phrase ‘last evening’ – it would alway be ‘yesterday evening’

  14. You didn’t quite do it here, but I love the American insistence that the newspaper called ‘The New York Times’ is ‘The Times’ and the one actually called ‘The Times’ is ‘The London Times’!

    As for ‘have a quiet word with’, to me it carries a connotation of taking someone aside and possibly even threatening them in some way.

    1. There is also no “British Open” in golf. It’s “The Open”. And British postage stamps are the only ones, I believe, which do not have the name of the issuing country on them. In each case, “The Times”, “The Open” and the stamps, this is because the British one was first and there was no need to make a distinction. All of the upstarts, however, need to distinguish themselves from the originals.

  15. If you’ve ever worked in the Civil Service, or been near it, there are few phrases more chilling than “A word?” from a superior.

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