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What does the expression if you catch my drift mean? Where does it originate? I've heard it in the context to signify something like if you know what I mean.

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It's worth noting that it's often used particularly with, for example, gossipy topics. There's a suggestion of something untoward, something unspeakable, a real shocker. Example, "Money changed hands, if you get my drift..." "No, surely not!" "Uh huh!" ie: she wasn't just a floosey, she's a hooker! "If you get my drift" is a comic stock to suggest gossipyness. –  Joe Blow Jul 2 '11 at 22:15
    
It's a phrase William F. Buckley would always use after saying something completely incomprehensible. "The oscillating tendency of regulated markets to fundamentally obfuscate is nevertheless periodically obsequious, ... if you catch my drift." –  The Dude Oct 31 '13 at 23:38
    
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4 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The part "my drift" means there is a chain of thoughts or an inside meaning that is not clearly defined. the expression is used whenever you think the listener may be confused or not follow your main idea.

The origin of the word "drift", according to OED, was in the 1520s:

drift (n.) Sense of "what one is getting at" is from 1520s. Related: Drifted; drifting.

I can't know for sure the origin of the expression "if you catch my drift".

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I'll buy that. @Jay Elston's answer unnecessarily introduces the concept of "indirect answer to a question", which isn't central to the usage. What is important is that the speaker has reason to think the hearer might not understand. IMHO, the primary purpose of the expression is to alert the hearer to consider what's being said more carefully than he might otherwise, so he will understand. –  FumbleFingers Jul 2 '11 at 23:35
    
@FumbleFingers Exactly and for the second time you backed up my story, if you catch my drift:). Thanks for buying my answer. –  Jamie Jul 3 '11 at 18:30
    
Finding the first didn't take long, but it's just taken me ages to learn how to add a link in a comment like this! (I hope it works when I click Add Comment :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 3 '11 at 19:34
    
Yay!! I'm now a grandmaster comment formatter! (am I drifting off-topic?) –  FumbleFingers Jul 3 '11 at 19:34
    
The good old(!) roaring twenties! –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 2 '13 at 10:54
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It means that you have not given a direct answer to a question, or you have not made an explicit statement describing a situation. Rather you have made a statement that should allow a listener / reader to understand what you meant. Essentially, your conversation is drifting towards a statement, but you stop before you get there. You use the phrase to alert the listener that there is an inference to be drawn.

get my drift is another form of this phrase.

For example:

if you say:

These were obviously last year's favorites, if you get my drift.

instead of:

They are no longer in style.

The phrase has been around a long time. Shakespeare uses my drift (meaning my meaning) a in a few of his plays. The term predates this usage.

Note: the quote is from Real Vampires Have More to Love by Gerry Bartlett.

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I agree with what you say, but for "allow a listener to understand what you meant" I would suggest "allow a listener to infer your meaning"; the phrase "if you catch my drift" is merely a marker to alert the listener (or reader) that there is an inference to be drawn. +1, with that caveat. –  Robusto Jul 2 '11 at 19:06
    
@Robusto -thanks, I updated the post. –  Jay Elston Jul 2 '11 at 19:45
    
Personally I think "if you catch my drift" is more likely to follow an unsolicited, superficially unclear or irrelevant statement, rather than an indirect answer to a question. Or, oftentimes, following some idiomatic usage which the speaker isn't certain the hearer will be familiar with. –  FumbleFingers Jul 2 '11 at 23:27
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@FumbleFingers: This reminds me of the classic Monty Python sketch in which the inquiring, sexual neophyte* keeps "drifting" close to asking the married man about his sex life, but all he says is, "Wink wink; nudge nudge"! *Eric Idle, I believe. –  rhetorician May 27 '13 at 0:23
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The phrase means: "If you know where I'm going." (But I don't want to go there.)

Rivers have currents, or "drifts." At places, it's dangerous to go too far along a river.

More to the point, there are often social "currents," that are tricky to navigate. So the speaker doesn't want to go "too far." But if the listener (mentally) "jumps in," where the speaker stops, and follows the "drift" (current) s/he will get the point.

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Simply 60's lingo for "if you understand how I came to this conclusion."

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