Growing up in my family, we would often use the phrase "tell me when" when serving each other food, pouring drinks, etc. For example, my mother would begin pouring me a glass of milk and say "tell me when"--I would then say "when" to indicate that she should stop pouring.

When I got married, my wife was familiar with the phrase, and I had always assumed this was a common phrase. However, I don't remember using it much (if at all) outside of home. Is the usage of this phrase common? What are its origins?

2 Answers 2


Not only is it common, it even has a dictionary mention, however this mentions Say when rather than Tell me when and that's certainly what I have encountered most often (and use myself).

when, adv. (conj. and n.)

2. In an indirect question or clause of similar meaning: At what time; on what occasion; in what case or circumstances. Also ellipt.
say when, colloq. formula used by a person pouring out drink for another, to ask him to say when he shall stop; also ellipt., as a reply to this formula.


That is, in answer to the colloquial formula "Say when", a person might answer "When!" as a humorous answer to being told to say that, as well as indicating "Now is when I want you to stop".

  • Aah, I see. Searching for "tell me when" doesn't give good results, but searching for "say when" certainly does. Thanks! Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 13:04
  • Andrew, another "humorous" answer is to say "When?" as an immediate reply to confuse the pourer completely. Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 13:54

Presumably, "tell me when to stop (pouring)".

This phrase was common in my house as a child as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.