as who should say

Reading a Thurber essay about Henry James, I came across this phrase:

James’s Renunciation Scene is managed, as who should say, rather more exquisitely than Hammett’s

I hadn’t encountered the phrase as who should say before, so I mentally marked it to look up later, and I kept reading. On the next page, Thurber writes:

That is simply, as who should not say, one of those rococo coincidences.

(Speaking of coincidences: that sentence is in reference to the character of Joel Cairo, from The Maltese Falcon, memorably portrayed (in the best-known movie version) by Peter Lorre. Cairo-played-by-Lorre was later parodied by Firesign Theatre with the character Rocky Rococo. Now I’m wondering whether rococo was sometimes code for “gay.” My dictionary doesn’t answer that question, though it does say that one meaning of rococo is “of or relating to an 18th century musical style marked by light gay ornamentation.” I am amused.)


I looked up as who should say online, and immediately found a couple of definitions, but they weren’t useful ones for me:

  • The first one I found, from various dictionaries, was “as if one should say.” I have no idea what that means.
  • The second, from Lexico, was slightly clearer: “as if to say.” Example phrase: “he meekly bowed to him, as who should say ‘Proceed.’” That’s clearer, but it still makes no sense in the context of the Thurber sentences.

Finally, I checked Merriam-Webster, as I should have from the start. It has no entry for as who should say per se, but under the entry for who, it defines as who should say thusly: “archaic: so to speak.”

So then I did a search for as who should not say, and found that the only instances of that phrase are from this Thurber essay.

So I guess that Thurber’s first line quoted above is using the phrase more or less the same way we would use so to speak, and his second line quoted above is a play on the phrase as who should say.

At this point, I started to wonder about how and when so to speak came to be used to indicate unusual or figurative phrasing; but a quick search didn’t answer that question, and I decided that I had spent enough time on this particular line of research.

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