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When someone says "give me a second", or "one second please", how long do they actually mean?

Do they mean "will give you a response as soon as I can", or "in a short time, around 5 minutes"

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They can mean anything from a second ("I'll just hit Enter and be with you") to never ("I'll finish writing this email first, then forget all about you unless you remind me again, in which case I'll ask for another second"). When in doubt, ask them. –  RegDwigнt Aug 17 '12 at 8:54
    
It's a hypothetical second. So it could be from a second to a year :) –  Noah Aug 17 '12 at 11:15

2 Answers 2

Exaggeration. That's the word, mate.

Example: When a woman says, Just a sec honey.

It means, we have to wait forever until they are done ;)

However, on sincere note.

Just a second is just another way of saying "I know what to do and I will do it quickly".

Best usage when responding to someone should be "I will be back momentarily"

which directly means : "will give you a response as soon as I can"

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Hah! Apart from the inherent ambiguity of the word "momentarily". Where I come from, this word more often means "for a brief time" than "after a brief time". "I will be back momentarily, then I will leave again". –  user16269 Aug 17 '12 at 8:49
    
+1 @DavidWallace . However, where I work and communicate with people, it means, "as soon as possible", which at times goes till next day! Example... "brief time" when compared with entire life can be 1 year too! and "brief time" when compared to a year can be a day! Unless otherwise specified "brief time" ;) :D –  KarmicDice Aug 17 '12 at 8:52
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Isn't this a British vs American English thing? I mean momentarily... So, if you know which English your opponent speaks it's not that ambiguous at all. –  Em1 Aug 17 '12 at 9:09
    
I was born in India, studied in British school, lived in London, but currently working in India with American clients. ;) and I say "momentarily" when I do not want them to disturb me so that I can work faster :) –  KarmicDice Aug 17 '12 at 9:15
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@KarmicDice Just remember that a woman's "I'll be ready in 5 minutes" is roughly equivalent to a man's "I'm leaving the bar in 5 minutes" –  Kevin Aug 17 '12 at 14:02

If someone told me, "I'll be ready in a minute," I wouldn't interpret that to mean a literal 60 seconds. In fact, I wouldn't even assume that "one minute" was a rough estimate; I'd assume it was a figure of speech, and could be anywhere from, say, 20 or 25 seconds to five minutes or so. (Every once in a while, someone will respond to "in a minute" by looking at their watch, and saying, "okay, I'm timing you," which might be construed as lighthearted banter, but it could also be regarded as a rather sophomoric response.)

Perhaps "in a second" would be a little quicker than "in a minute", but I wouldn't bet on it. Other ways one could express the same thought would be:

  • in a moment
  • in a jiff
  • as soon as I can
  • ASAP

Interestingly enough, my Mac's on-board thesaurus says that in a minute and in a second are synonyms:

enter image description here That's a beautiful thing about language; it doesn't require the stopwatch precision of the hard sciences. Zero notwithstanding, where else can you multiply by 60 and mean the same thing?

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... but in many areas (including most of Southern Europe, Latin America and Africa), time is a servant, not a master. The idea that a person should be ruled by the clock is amusing. In these countries, it's fine if a person is on time. But it's also fine if a person is late. After all, life is complex, and many things happen. If you spot a friend on the way to an appointment in Paris, surely it is more important to chat with your friend than to rush to some arbitrary deadline! –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Aug 17 '12 at 11:45
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@XavierVidalHernández: Why did you start with the preposition "but"? Nothing in my answer, or the O.P.'s question, indicated that people should be ruled by the clock. Your philosophical prattle has nothing to do with the meaning of "give me a second", which is the topic at hand. –  J.R. Aug 17 '12 at 14:21
    
Agreed it's highly ambiguous, but I generally understand "in a second" or "in a minute" to mean at most a few minutes, while "as soon as I can" and "ASAP" could easily mean days or months. Of course someone could say, "I'll be ready in a minute" and not really be ready for another hour, but then I'd think they had broken their promise. But if someone says, "We are working to find a cancer cure as soon as we can", that might well mean many years from now. –  Jay Aug 17 '12 at 14:46
    
@Jay: I agree; it's highly contextual. When I listed my four alternatives, I was imagining myself getting ready to leave the house, wanting to do something trivial (like grab a jacket or change my shoes), and being asked, "Are you ready to go?", whereby I might answer, "Just about, I'll be ready ___." But your point is well-taken, there are plenty of other contexts where these would either not be appropriate phrasing, or not mean the same thing as "in a second". –  J.R. Aug 17 '12 at 16:29

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