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Is there any semantic difference between "just a minute" and "just a second", especially when answering a door?

To me, "just a second" is equivalent to "i'm on my way", while "just a minute" conveys a message of "i have to do something first". However, i mentioned this to some other people, and they didn't make a difference?

Is a difference, or lack thereof, mentioned in any "official" guidelines? I did a quick Google search but didn't come up with anything.

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    It's all explained in the manual they give to new husbands. Depends on whether it's a shopping second/minute, a makeup second/minute, or a chatting-with-girlfriend second/minute. – Hot Licks Aug 9 '15 at 20:01
  • @HotLicks That's no help! Eternity can't be made any longer or shorter depending upon context... – Tonepoet Aug 9 '15 at 20:09
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    You might as well add just a moment and all the other things people say when they put you on hold. – tchrist Aug 10 '15 at 1:03
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For all intents and purposes (sorry for the cliché), the two expressions are pretty much equivalent. According to communication theory (sorry for the pretentiousness) they are used in a variety of ways:

  • stalling tactics, as when a child is being called away from an enjoyable activity by an impatient parent ("Just a minute, mom"); or when a friend is taking a bit too long "seeing" your latest gadget and he says, "Just a second, I'm just learning how it works"; or when a teacher is requesting you turn in your test paper now, and you say "Just a sec" (i.e., second).

  • polite requests for patience, as in your example of the person who is delayed in answering the door (perhaps she just emerged naked from a shower; or perhaps he needs to tidy up the room a bit before letting someone in; or perhaps she's simply putting the finishing touches on a surprise birthday cake).

  • not-so-polite requests for patience when said in a certain tone, as if to say to the doorbell ringer, "Hold your horses, you twit!"

  • holding-back commands designed to prevent a person from impulsively charging into something without any forethought ("Just a sec, Mr. Impatience, let's consider the ramifications of what you're about to do").

  • approximations of how much time someone will take to do something, said in a matter-of-fact tone (when someone asks, "How long will he take to arrive?" and you say, "Oh, just a minute, I suspect").

This last example is one in which "Just a second" would not exactly be equivalent to "Just a minute." "Just a minute" could mean just an approximate amount of time, and not literally just a minute. It could mean perhaps two or three or four minutes; in other words, a short amount of time, but certainly not a long time.

You are probably better off using "Just a sec" when being rushed to complete an activity and are on the brink of finishing it but not quite. "Just a minute" would be OK in some situations, but not in others.

In conclusion, the nonverbal aspects which are part and parcel of either phrase are significant determiners of how they're being used and what they mean and how they mean it, whatever "it" may be. The person saying the words could mean a literal minute or second (well, maybe not a second, but you get the idea). More often than not, however, the person is using the phrase figuratively to mean simply "a short amount of time" (unless they're stalling until you give up ringing the doorbell and walk away in disgust!).

  • @Centaurus: Thank you, thank you very much. (How's my Elvis impression?) Don – rhetorician Aug 10 '15 at 0:58
  • It should be noted that individuals will likely prefer one or the other -- Fred might regularly say "Just a minute" while Joe usually says "Just a second" in the same situation. – Hot Licks Aug 10 '15 at 3:15
  • +1 for the comprehensive answer, but what about reference? – Eilia Aug 10 '15 at 5:35
  • @Elia: Thanks for noticing. Yeah, for a Ph.D. you'd expect at least one footnote! Guess I'm getting a little careless in my dotage. (I'm 65.) Don – rhetorician Aug 10 '15 at 12:12
  • @HotLicks: Good point. Myself, I lean more toward "Just a minute" than "Just a second." As Fred Astaire put it, "You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto; Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto! Let's call the whole thing off! But oh! If we call the whole thing off, Then we must part. And oh! If we ever part, Then that might break my heart! So, if you like pajamas and I like pajahmas, I'll wear pajamas and give up pajahmas. For we know we need each other, So we better call the calling off off. Let's call the whole thing off!" Don – rhetorician Aug 10 '15 at 12:18

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