Just a sec

How often, dear Reader, do you say "Just a sec," despite knowing that you will need longer than a literal second?

And how often do people tell you "Just a sec" without literally meaning it?

Although Merriam-Webster defines second as "the 60th part of a minute of time," we, in fact, never know how long we really will have to wait. It can vary between a few seconds and several minutes.

"I'll call you right back" falls within the same category. While "I'll call you back" does not suggest any time frame, the word right does as it literally means "without delay, immediately."

But people who claim to call "right back" will not do so immediately. They may need several minutes or even longer. I have occasionally waited for an hour and more, and have even been stood up.

If you have ever been on an airplane, you may have been introduced to the time frames pilots love to use with passengers.

"We'll be on our way shortly" can mean anything, but usually ignores the literal meaning of shortly, which is "having little length." Even if the captain says, "In ten minutes, we'll be on our way," we cannot take "ten minutes" literally. If you are unlucky, it could mean an hour or more.

All these time expressions have lost their literal meaning and instead convey the notion of "briefly."

But as we know, we sometimes have to wait a lot longer than "briefly." So why do speakers nonetheless use such expressions?

Perhaps things just take longer than expected, or they do not want to sound rude or discourage the person waiting. After all, how would it make you feel if a clerk bluntly told you "Wait," and the captain confessed, "I don't know yet when we'll leave?"

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at ribitsch@lycoming.edu.