Know when to say "when"

Alright etymologists! When did people start saying “when” to get waiters to stop pouring wine in their glass? Why not “Stop!” or “Enough!”? I figure there had to be a logical reason for this at one time…

“Would you like some more water?”

“Yes, please.”

“How much? Say when.”

“When.”

O.K.–so “when” is short for “say when to stop.” But how long have people been using this expression?

I think it’s just a matter of letting the 1% of the brain that you really don’t pay much attention to run the show. It’s almost a knee-jerk to reply “when” after someone says “say when”.

If restaurant staff pouring water would say “Tell me when to stop” only the smartasses would reply “when.”

I’m 51, and it’s been going on for as long as I can remember, at least in the NE USA.


John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

It’s trying to act smart by being stupid.

Like “Say goodnight, Gracie.”
“Goodnight, Gracie.”

Or the classic line from some movie where everyone is taking an oath.
“Repeat after me, ‘I, state your name…’”
“I, state your name…”

Maybe “when” was originally a smartass retort, but it has become so accepted that no one takes offense. For example, I had lunch at a pizza buffet. When I was finished, I wrote “WHEN” on a napkin and took it up to the counter. When the waiter saw the napkin, he knew I had enough and rang up my bill…

Isn’t that the motto for the alcoholic beverage commisson?

True. They have a slogan: “Know when to say when.” They’re trying to encourage people to drink responsibly, but they’ve got an uphill battle. Sure it would be nice if everyone just drank alcoholic beverages for the taste, but a very large minority drink beer, wine, and liquor for the express purpose of getting drunk. I don’t think many people in the latter group worry terribly about the danger of drunk driving or liver disease…