This is Wikipedia text about the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun:

"Hamsun was eventually invited to meet with Hitler; during the meeting, he complained about the German civilian administrator in Norway, Josef Terboven, and asked that imprisoned Norwegian citizens be released, enraging Hitler.[31] Otto Dietrich describes the meeting in his memoirs as the only time that another person was able to get a word in edgeways with Hitler. He attributes the cause to Hamsun's deafness."

Since I'm not a native English speaker, I got somewhat confused by the expression "to get a word in edgeways". I did some search online, but nowadays the searches of that kind result in inconclusive add-based/click-bait/SEO-optimized results.

My understanding was that Hamsun (who, besides being almost deaf, were a 80+ elder at the time of the meeting) spoke all the time, barely listening to anything that Hitler said; but I'm afraid that I could be mistaken and what happened was just the contrary (Hitler was the one who talked to much).

Of course my question is only about the "idiomatic expression"; does "Hamsun got a word in edgeways with Adolf" really means "Adolf could not speak to Hamsun"?

  • Collins, Macmillan, Wiktionary, Phrases.org ... all list the meaning. Sep 15 at 15:12
  • 1
    The image is of someone trying to squeeze a word in 'sideways' between the constant flow of the other person's words. - - - - | - - Sep 15 at 16:38
  • Thank you, this is exactly the point of view that I was needing... "squeeze a word in sideways"
    – mguima
    Sep 15 at 17:56

The Cambridge Dictionary gives a clear definition for the phrase:

to have an opportunity to speak

An example:

Adam and John are talking. John is talking all the time without a pause, not letting Adam speak. Adam can't get a word in edgeways. Nobody ever can.

Along comes Bob and joins the conversation. Bob speaks without a problem (because he can't hear John or doesn't care about interrupting people). It's the only time that another person can get a word in edgeways wih John.


It helps me to break apart the quoted passage into key points.

  • Most of the time Hitler did so much talking that it prevented other people from talking. Usually people were not "able to get a word in edgeways with Hitler".
  • Hamsun was "able to get a word in edgeways with Hitler". The author says that it was "the only time another person was able to" and attributes this unusual accomplishment to Hamsun's deafness.
  • The fact that there was a conversation between Hamsun and Hitler means that Hamsun was not completely deaf. He most likely he had reduced capacity hearing so that he missed most of what Hitler said.

In the same Wikipedia it confirms:

When World War II began, he was 80 years old, almost deaf,

So, Adolf could speak to Hamsun but it was difficult. Hamsun would talk over Hitler because he had a hard time hearing Hitler and thus "get a word in edgewise".

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