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The phrase "search me" is so ubiquitous in the English language that it is found on every list of common idioms. It is a situational idiom for "I don't know" in response to any direct question. But where did it originate? English has a lot of expressions, usually sarcastic, for expressing ignorance. Where did this one come from and when?

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    According to etymonline, the idiom search ME - as a verbal shrug of ignorance – is first recorded 1901.) – user98990 Jul 11 '15 at 17:52
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Even as a native speaker of a language which doesn't have a similar idiom (German), I always found this one immediately clear and obvious:

  • I swear I haven't got your keys. Search me if you don't believe me! [literal]
  • I swear I don't know where your keys are. Search me! [literal]
  • I swear I don't know where you parked your car. Search me! [literal though jocular]
  • I swear I never knew your birthday in the first place. Search me. [could theoretically be literal, referring to some kind of written proof, though in practice it almost certainly isn't]
  • Search me if [= whether] I know where that came from!

Search me! clearly started as a particularly drastic way of asserting that you don't have something. As we all love drastic expressions and tend to overuse them, it was overused and gradually felt less and less drastic.

[Added after Oldbag's comment:]

Equal stress on both words (as the dictionaries say), or even stress only on the second word, makes sense as follows: "Search me for information, and you won't find any!" "Search me for information? What are you thinking?" This is only a variation of the above. It's slightly more complicated, so while the variant that I described with stress on search may exist only in my head, it would also be plausible as an earlier stage that made place for a new, even more drastic way of saying it.

PS: In the specific case that I found described in Webster's, i.e. in response to a question, there is a straightforward interpretation of search me with any stress pattern as short for: "It won't do you any good to search me!"

  • Sorry, -1. In most of your examples, the emphasis would be on the word "search" as in: "SEARCH me!" The way the expression is pronounced is: : "search ME!" I don't know the origin, although it was a popular saying in the mid 20th century. It is actually the equivalent of: "Damned if I know!" – Oldbag Jul 11 '15 at 11:02
  • @Oldbag: the stress could easily have changed at some point in the etymological progression Hans describes. – Peter Shor Jul 11 '15 at 11:59
  • @Oldbag: consider the similar expression "Damned if I know". If you meant it literally, you wouldn't put the stress on "I". But when it means "Search me," you naturally put the stress on "I". The stress shifting to "me" in "Search me" would similarly be perfectly natural. – Peter Shor Jul 11 '15 at 12:26
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Dictionary definitions

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997/2013) generally agrees with Etymonline on the approximate date of origin of the phrase (as noted in a comment beneath the poster's question by user98990):

search me I don't know the answer to that, as in Where's John?—Search me, I haven't seen him for weeks. This expression in effect means "you can investigate me completely for the information you want but you won't find it. {Slang; c. 1900}

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) gives an example from 1905, in the form o a book title:

search me, {you can} I don't know. 1905: You Can Search Me {book title}, Hugh McHugh. 1951: "'Oh, why must people ... chase after money? ...' 'Search me.'" M. Shulman, Dobie Gillis, 155. Fig. = you can search me and won't find an answer.


Google Books search results

The earliest matches that my Google Books searches turned up follow the wording of McHugh's book: "You can search me." From David Phillips, The Deluge (1905):

"Good form!" I exclaimed. "That's what I want. What does 'good form' mean?"

He laughed. "You can search me," said he. "I could easier tell you—anything else. It's what everybody recognizes, and nobody knows how to describe. It's like the difference between a cultivated 'jimson' weed and a wild one."

From Lincoln Steffens, "A Servant of God and the People: The Story of Mark Fagan, Mayor of Jersey City," in McClure's Magazine (January 1906):

When Mr. Record confessed he could not account for it, he referred m to Jimmy Connolly, and I asked Connolly: "How does Mark Fagan do it?"

"You can search me," said he. "I've watched him, and I've listened to him, and I give it up. And you can ast anybody in this town [Jersey City, New Jersey]; we've all ast ourselves and that is where you'11 end up. You'll ast yourself. I don't know what he says, and I've listened to him, but he doesn't say nothing. Leastways, if you or the likes of me said to a fellar what Mark says, I can just hear the fellar say, 'Say, what ye givin' me, what?' 'Say,' he'd say, 'haven't ye got th' price of a drink in your clothes?' But when Mark says it, what he says, they fall down to it like dead soldiers. Nope you got to find that out for yerself."

From George Ade, Father and the Boys, excerpted in Current Literature (September 1908):

WILLIAM. Are we too late?

LEMUEL. Let me get down to earth. Too late? Too late for what?

HIGBEE. What is this anyway.

BESSIE. You can search me.

THOMAS. When we got into Goldfield this morning we heard that you'd come out here. As soon as we could get some proper clothing we followed you. We knew she was with you.

The first instance I found of "Search me" in the relevant sense without "You can" preceding it is from Leavitt Knight, "Baltimore Lunch and Hartford Lunch," in Everybody's Magazine (April 1914), where it becomes a recurring refrain, and indeed something of a punchline:

Passing the cashier's desk, I halted. "Sir," I addressed the occupant, a flabby youth and slumbrous, "what is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch?"

"Search me!" he said with much earnestness—and even with worry, I fancied. "Good night!"

...

One long minute the cashier contemplated me uncertainly. Then dolefully he thrust back the dollar, shook his sleek head, and said: "Search me!"

"That's what they said all day yesterday!" Leander piped, and from behind me, he leered wickedly at the cashier. "Search me! Search me! Search me! You'd think they were a pack of crooks who had passed long their stolen goods before the bulls pinched them! ..."

Two months later, Parker Fillmore, "The Stenog," in Everybody's Magazine (June 1914) is back at it:

"But why is he in love?" Rosie demanded.

Terry shook his head gloomily. "Search me."

...

"Jarge, dear, tell me one thing: why are you in love with her?"

George shook his head. "Search me. I don't know."

And then from Lydia Crane, "Newsboys," in The Child Labor Bulletin (August 1914):

SAM It is fun though, isn't it, to be a newsboy?

NEWSIE (Gloomily) Search me! If it is I ain't found it out. Some of the boys think it's fine; but they'd think anything fine that kept them on the street and let them run wild and get pennies for craps and movies. Now that ain't me. It's business with me.


Newspaper archive search results

A rather laborious search of newspaper records turns up a match for "you can search me" in the idiomatic sense from 1897. From "Floats for P. O .P.: This Year's Great Spectacle Is Nearly Ready," in the Kansas City [Missouri] Journal (September 19, 1897):

"Do you follow the coloring on the water color painting?" Mr. Toye was asked.

"Only in a general way," he replied. "I study the water color sketch, the coloring and the shading, after which I study the float, decide upon the color and go to work. There is a difference between the work to be done here and what was done in water colors. This is all solid, opaque—a scumble."

"A what?"

"Why, a scrumble," answered Mr. Toye, seemingly surprised at the interrogatory that disclosed such profound ignorance.

"What's a scrumble?" the reporter asked the artist [not Mr. Toye].

"You can search me," was the reply.

"What's a scrumble. Mr. Toye?"

"A scrumble is tho breaking of a lighter color over a darker to give it a transparent effect. Glazing is breaking a darker over a light color to reduce or heighten the tone."

A second instance occurs in "St. Louis Letter," in the [St Genevieve, Missouri] Fair Play (March 12, 1898):

Take the speeches of the average congressman and analyze them, and the majority of them are nine-tenths wind and the other tenth down-right absurdity. ...

What good do such speeches and such congressmen do? To use the slang phrase, "you can search me." The candidate on the stump should be asked: "What do you propose to do if elected?" If he has nothing better in mind than making political speeches in the halls of congress, he should be promptly turned down and some one elected who proposes to do something and keep on hammering at it until it is accomplished, or until he is convinced that such would not be for the best interests of the country.

St. Genevieve is on the eastern edge of the state, not far from St. Lois, while Kansas City is on the western edge of the state. Nevertheless, it is an unexpected coincidence that the two earliest authenticated matches for the slang expression "you can search me" are from the same midwestern state.

A seemingly relevant instance of the short form "Search me" appears in "Here Is a Machine That Shows How Drugs Poison Men," in the San Francisco [California] Call (June 12, 1898):

"Well, will you have a drink of whisky now, just to show how the stimulant affects your pulse?" asked Dr. Simon.

The man's eyes glistened and he drew a deep breath of anticipation as he remarked emphatically, if laconically:

"Would I? Search me," and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

Here , "Search me" seems to have an idiomatic sense along the lines of "Give me a chance and see if I don't."

Another instance appears in "An Artistic Frost," in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (August 27, 1898), this time using "Search me" in the unmistakably modern sense:

"But strangest of all," put in the wife of a celebrated naval hero, "my pocket book with all my money and jewelry, has disappeared."

"What!" came the chorus, and all eyes turned in the direction of the unfortunate young Washingtonians [who had been speaking in cyphers at supper the night before].

They looked at each other in astonishment, and in the silence that followed beat a hasty exit.

"I wonder if those queer ones think e swiped their pocket book?" asked one.

"They are liable to think anything after that conversation last night."

"What'll we do?"

"Search me."

"Maybe they will!"


Conclusions

Writers have been invoking David's psalm 139 for centuries, as for example, in Robin Jeffs, Fast Sermons to Parliament (1646) [combined snippets]:

Hence it was that David desired to be kept from secret sins; not onely such as were secret to others but especially which were secret to himself; which is the proper meaning of that place. Psal. 19.12. For which purpose he also further desires the help and assistance of God. Psal. 139.23. Search me O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. And thus far of sins whether; which is the first thing to be sound out by us.

Likewise, various nineteenth-century accounts of people suspected of having taken something describe the suspect, after protesting his or her innocence, as telling the accusers, "You can search me if you don't believe me."

The idiomatic expression "Search me" meaning "I have no idea" is relatively recent. Reference works put the first recorded instances of the wording in the relevant sense at 1900 or 1901, but the earliest I found are of the longer phrase "You can search me," and date to 1897 and 1898; both are from newspapers published in Missouri. The earliest unmistakable match for the shorter form "Search me" is from an article printed in a Washington, D.C. newspaper in 1898.

Several Google Books matches for "You can search me" pop up during the period 1905–1908, suggesting that adoption of the phrase had become significantly more widespread by then. The shortened form "Search me" suddenly proliferates in Google Books matches in 1914.

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I may wish to suggest that the origin of this phrase may not be English, if it is found in the Bible. Originally it meant "look keenly at" The etymological contruct in English, German, etc are but expansions of the phrase. In Hebrew it means"to look keenly" meant more than observing.

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    Is it used figuratively in the Bible? This question is focussed on the figurative usage. – Max Williams Aug 18 '16 at 7:40
  • What would be the German construct? – Helmar Aug 18 '16 at 9:07

protected by NVZ Jun 14 '17 at 8:29

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