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We were looking at this sentence, or actually a line of dialogue:

They're in the car.

JACK
Say John! I better concentrate. Would you be able to figure out the AC?

Our colleague Jane who is generally British (she has lived mixed in Britain and Euro countries, but never the US) commented:

"Ahah it’s probably because I’m from the UK, but I never hear “Say” to start a sentence to get someone’s attention! As in [that example]. Is it an American thing?"

What is everyone's opinion on this?

Is there any scholarly research on the issue?

(I personally do and have always lived both in the AmE region and BrE region, so I am completely confused on such matters. For example, right now without googling the answer, I do not know which side uses "boot" versus "trunk" on a car, and so on.)

So in BrE, if the Beatles were talking and George said "Say Ringo. Have you seen ..." would that be unusual, AmE-ish, wrong?

For me it's quite a natural thing to say. Example, you're sitting with your spouse, "Say honey. What would you like for dinner." But maybe I'm completely mistaken.

Could it just be archaic? I'm sure I've been in a meeting, for example, where everyone is puzzling over a problem and someone utters "Say. Did we think of changing the batteries..."

What's the deal on "Say."

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    Exclamation: informal North American
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 13:02
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    I'm British and I definitely think of it as American. The British equivalent is I say. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 13:03
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    Though 'say' or 'I say' sounds a bit meaningless (what exactly are you 'say' ing?), the use of say is used in other languages in a similar way. 'Dis donc' in French, 'sag mal' in German. Chinese anyone?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 14:06
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    @KateBunting: surely I say is obsolete?
    – TonyK
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 23:07
  • @TonyK - Yes, the Macmillan link I supplied calls it 'old-fashioned'. Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 8:56

3 Answers 3

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Looking up "say exclamation/interjection" on Google, we see that it is definitely American:

say exclamation
(North American English, informal)

  • ​used for showing surprise or pleasure
    Say, that's a nice haircut!

  • used for attracting somebody’s attention or for making a suggestion or comment
    Say, how about going to a movie tonight?

(Oxford Learner's Dictionaries)

say interjection
chiefly US, informal

  1. used to express surprise, shock, etc.
    Say, isn't that your friend over there?
    Say, that's a wonderful idea.

  2. used to attract the attention of someone
    Say there. Can you help me?
    Say, do you want to see a movie tonight?

(Learner's Dictionary)

  1. EXCLAMATION

Say is used to attract someone's attention or to express surprise, pleasure, or admiration.

[US, informal]

Say, how would you like to have dinner one night, just you and me?

(Collins)

And then there's "I say", which is British:

I say

  1. Used preceding an utterance to call attention to it: I say, do you have the time?
  2. Used as an exclamation of surprise, delight, or dismay.

I say! chiefly informal Brit; an exclamation of surprise.

(The Free Dictionary)

I say (idiom)
British, old-fashioned

  1. used to express surprise, shock, etc.
    I say! Isn't that your friend over there?
    I say! That's a wonderful idea.

  2. used to attract the attention of someone
    I say (there). Can you help me?

(Merriam Webster)

say
exclamation; old-fashioned

used to express surprise or pleasure, or to attract attention to what you are about to say:

  • US: Say, that's really good of you!
  • US: Say, how about going out tonight?
  • UK: I say, what a splendid hat you're wearing!

(Cambridge)

I say!

This British exclamation of surprise or astonishment dates back to the late 1700s and may be even older. Although still closely identified with proper Englishmen, its use has in fact diminished in recent years, perhaps in part because of its ripeness for parody. It was a favorite interjection of gap-toothed British comedic actor Terry-Thomas, who all but whistled it through his dental cranny.

(ZOUNDS!: A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections)

From Barrie England's answer to What is the origin of the dated British expression "I say!":

It was much used in comedy acts in the 20th century to introduce a joke, particularly in a double act. For example:

FUNNY MAN: ‘I say, I say, I say, my wife’s gone to the West Indies.’

STRAIGHT MAN: Jamaica?

FUNNY MAN: No, she went of her own accord

A common alternative for "say/I say" is "Hey(,)" in the sense of attracting someone's attention:

Hey honey. What would you like for dinner?

Hey Ringo. Have you seen...

Hey. Did we think of changing the batteries...

In British English, it's clear that "I say" is not in use anymore (see "old-fashioned"). I believe "say" (in American English) isn't common either; as opposed to more common calls for attention (such as "Hey", etc.), "say" seems to have become old-fashioned as well.

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    The only examples of "I say!" that spring to mind are from the lips of Bertie Wooster. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 15:19
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    @EdwinAshworth: My thoughts exactly. Nobody uses it any more.
    – TonyK
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 23:07
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    My father used to use "I say" to attract attention, so I think it must have still been current in the 1950s and 1960s. Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 11:23
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    @snakecharmerb There is a 1964 Peter Sellers film called I say, I say, I say, and I seem to remember that particular combination being a catch phrase at that time, although Google search is flooded with more recent hits for that.
    – David
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 12:55
  • The "Interjection" def looks like the right one to me. Its basically something one says specifically in conversation (not writing) to test that its OK to proceed with important information. Like flow control in computer networking. You start with "Say..." and if nobody else starts talking at the same time, and the intended listeners seem ready, you proceed delivering the actual sentence.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 15:12
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To my ears, it's very American, the very first thing that comes to mind is this scene from Terminator 2.

As neither a BrE or an AmE speaker (Irish), I can't say what the British equivalent would be, but "I say" sounds rather more like something an American scriptwriter would write for a stereotyped British character than something a real person would say, but the comment above disagrees. Nevertheless, I feel the more natural thing to do in BrE would be to draw out the first word rather than to use an interjection, e.g. "Honey...what would you like for dinner?"

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    OUTSTANDING example from a movie, you rock
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 17:42
  • "I say ..." is indeed purely comedic these days
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 19:26
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    @Fattie I’d point out (American, mostly the Northeast, mid-30’s) that these usages of a leading “say” sound pretty dated and/or stilted—very appropriate to the character in that clip, for instance.
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 21:42
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    Agree with @Dan - the T1000's use of correct but subtly non-idiomatic speech hints at his true nature. Also, Terminators aren't terribly familiar with colloquial speech patterns. (YT clip includes some possibly NSFW languange)
    – A C
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 0:05
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    "Honey"? In BE? "Honey" is American English.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 17:05
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In BrE, it's not common to announce new speech with "say" (which sounds distinctly AmE, and like Mark Allen my first thoughts were of Robert Patrick's line in Terminator 2).

But it's certainly common enough regionally to announce a repetition (of something said but not heard) by saying more loudly "I say!" - pronounced like "a-SAY" with the emphasis on the second syllable followed by a short pause - with the previous statement then repeated.

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  • I think you've summarized the situation Steve ... good one ...
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 15:42
  • Now I'm just imagining Foghorn Legcorn - definitely AmE, but only a very specific dialect of deep southern accent. Possibly also outdated. Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 14:21
  • @DarrelHoffman, we also have a TV programme in Britain called "Coronation Street", a so-called kitchen-sink drama, and there was a regular character for many years called Fred Elliot who had a very similar verbal schtick to Foghorn Leghorn, with extra "I say, I say"s and unnecessary repetition used for emphasis in an unbroken stream of speech. It didn't sound at all foreign, but it reflected the elements of a very broad regional dialect and particular speaking style.
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 18:26

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