I understand the phrase's meaning and its usage, but I don't know how it could have come to mean what it does.

Similar phrases like "in a manner of speaking" and "in a sense" make more sense. A sentence like "he's a parrot, in a sense" would mean "there exists an interpretation of the statement that he's a parrot such that the statement holds true". "He's a parrot, in a manner of speaking," would mean that one might speak in a particular colloquial in which "he's a parrot" has an appropriate meaning.

On the other hand, I don't even know how to parse the phrase "so to speak": "so, [if I were] to speak, [I would say ...]"? Or is "so-to speak" a kind of speak? Or does the "so" mean "true", as in "make it so"?

  • I think the italian corresponding expression would be "per così dire..."
    – Alenanno
    Jan 30, 2012 at 9:56
  • @Alenanno Interesting that you bring that up, Japanese also has the phrase "aru imi", which literally translates to "in one meaning". Jan 30, 2012 at 10:08
  • And what is the non-literal translation?
    – Alenanno
    Jan 30, 2012 at 10:44
  • @Alenanno Probably closest to "in a sense". Jan 30, 2012 at 10:45

1 Answer 1


One of the meanings of so is 'in this way'. He's a parrot, so to speak would mean 'Speaking, as I am, in this (rather figurative) way, he has some of the characteristics of one of the fruit- and seed-eating birds of the order Psittaciformes'.

  • Can you give me an example of another phrase in which "so" is used to mean "in this way"? Jan 30, 2012 at 10:04
  • @ReiMiyasaka: 'Just so’, which means ‘exactly in this way’. Jan 30, 2012 at 10:11

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