I've heard this quote in the past, but have never really found any reference to the meaning of it. "They say! What say they? Let them say." was the personal motto of reclusive millionaire Edward F. Searles.

  • The second sentence is very awkward; I'm surprised it was a native speaker's motto. – Dan Bron Dec 15 '16 at 16:02
  • 1
    Hadn't heard of it, but I would assume it means something like: "(So) they talk (about me)? What (do) they say? Let them talk.", or in short: "I don't care what they say about me." – BradC Dec 15 '16 at 16:02
  • 3
    "What say they" is certainly not modern usage, but isn't unrecognizable. "What say you?" is a (still antiquated) phrase that I've also heard. – BradC Dec 15 '16 at 16:04
  • 2
    What say you? Is very common although old-fashioned. That said, it then allows for What say they? – Lambie Dec 15 '16 at 16:45
  • 3
    @DanBron That's odd. The second sentence is the only one that sounds normal (if old-style) to me. “They say!” and “Let them say!” are extremely bizarre to me: say is mandatorily transitive in my world, and no object can be inferred from the quote given here. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 15 '16 at 17:49

This would be in response to a reproach grounded in folk wisdom or popular opinion—perhaps interrupting the reproach after just two words, the two spat back at the beginning of this “motto.” To paraphrase:

You throw popular opinion in my face? What is that popular opinion? No, never mind—let the great mass of fools say whatever they will.



The slogan was well known in the later 19th and early 20th century: Lily Langtry, for instance, is said to have had it either carved over her mantle or displayed in stained glass in the house the Prince of Wales built for her, and Bernard Shaw found it carved over the mantle of the house he bought in Adelphi Terrace.

The unusual syntax may be attributed to an origin in Renaissance Scots; it appears to have been originally the motto of Marischal College in Aberdeen, founded by the Earl Marischal of Scotland George Keith in 1593. A number of internet sources cite the oldest version as THAI HAIF SAID : QUHAT SAY THAY : LAT THAME SAY. But the earliest actual citation I have found is from 1824, in one of John MacCulloch's 'letters' to Walter Scott in The Highlands and Western Isles....

There are several posts in Notes & Queries claiming classical precedents, Latin (Aiunt. Quid aiunt? Aiant.) and Greek (λέγουσιν ἄ θέγουσιν λεγέτωσαν), and Keith was said to be a fine scholar in these languages.

  • 1
    +1, but λέγουσιν; ἃ θέλουσι λεγέτωσαν seems more likely. ("They say? Let them say what they wish.") – Brian Donovan Dec 15 '16 at 21:35
  • The St. Andrews Citizen - Saturday 09 March 1935 - reports on a door lintel being removed from a ruined historic cottage in St Andrews (Fife, Scotland). The lintel had an inscription and a date: 'They have said, and they will say; Let them be saying 1720' The lintel was moved in 1935 to the doorway to Dyers Brae garden wher it still is. – Doug Speirs Jun 19 '17 at 7:01
  • According to Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, it is carved into a mantle piece in a bedroom at Blenheim Palace. She wrote about it in 'The Glitter and the Gold' – Lynn Szakacs Sep 6 '17 at 16:23

"They Say"-The people will always have opinions, advise and suggestions for you.

"What Say They?"- In a way it means, how does it matter what they say? (its your life, your decision you are the actor) and also it could imply what say do they have in your life(authority to speak about someone else's life)

"Let them say"- They will always say...you cannot stop them. So let them say. To take or leave is entirely your decision.

  • This seems to repeat the responses of two other users without adding any particular value. – Scott Sep 7 '17 at 5:25

It's origins are Scottish -- Thay Haif Said: Quhat Say Thay? Lat Thame Say -- and date back to Clan Keith in the 16th Century

If you want to learn more, there is an interesting article here: http://rdhardesty.blogspot.com/2014/03/say.html

  • 1
    Is this your own article? – JJJ Jun 19 at 3:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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