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In a movie Angels and Demons, the following conversation occurs.

Historian- Why me?

Police- Your expertise. Your erudition. Your recent involvement with certain church, shall we say, mysteries!

What does "shall we say" mean here? The tone seems to be of asking something, however it isn't. So what does it mean here?

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    Even though I know exactly what this expression means, it's still a really hard thing to explain. – J.R. Sep 22 '13 at 16:33
  • @J.R., Why don't you try with an example? – Mistu4u Sep 22 '13 at 16:34
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    I might try to do that later. This is one that I'd like to think about for awhile, and see if something comes to mind. Right now, I'm just expressing my admiration for the question. – J.R. Sep 22 '13 at 16:36
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Have you ever noticed when someone is speaking, and the speaker comes to a particular word or phrase, and then pauses to wink at the person they are talking with? Sometimes that wink might mean, "I'm just joking here," but sometimes it means a little bit more than that. Sometimes, the wink suggests:

There's more I could say here – you know that, and I know that – but you and I have a mutual understanding, so there's no need to elaborate any further.

That is the essence of the inserted shall we say.

I'm reminded of a skit my daughter and her friends wrote and performed for their school history class. Their topic was the role of women in the U.S. Civil War, and they wanted to portray what one blogger describes as:

Women .. were excellent Civil War spies. Women were not seen as threats, and they could turn to seduction to get what they wanted. According to Winkler, they "tucked coded letters into their skirts, dressed as men, pretended to be grieving widows and seduced enemy officials to get and pass information."

In the skit, my daughter pulled a note from her bosom, shared the information, and then, before departing, said to her co-conspirator:

I'll be back; right now, I need to go get some more [*wink*] information.

Sometimes we might use the term quote-unquote to convey the same sentiment, or use "finger quotes" to do that with a visual cue:

"I'll be back; right now, I need to go get some more, quote-unquote, information."
"I'll be back; right now, I need to go get some more..." [pause and use finger-quotes] "information".

Another way she might have said that is:

I'll be back; right now, I need to go get some more, shall we say – "information".

No matter how it's spoken, or what visual cues are used, the sentiment is the same:

You know exactly what I mean when I say "go get some more information" – I don't need to go into the lurid and scandalous details.

Back to Angels and Demons (which is a sequel to The Da Vinci Code), where the speaker says:

Your expertise. Your erudition. Your recent involvement with certain church, shall we say, mysteries!

Here, the person being spoken to (Langdon) has indeed learned a lot about church's... What shall we call them? Mysteries? One word seems hardly adequate; it's a very tangled web. At any rate, the speaker and listener both know about all the secrets and conspiracies that were uncovered during Landon's previous adventures. By inserting the phrase shall we say before the word mysteries, it's as if the police inspector is saying:

This is long and complicated, but I'm going to just sum it up in one word – mysteries – which is probably inadequate, but you and I both know full well what I am talking about.

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    +1 for finger(air) quotes, It took me forever to find the find the meaning of that. – Dude Sep 23 '13 at 16:59
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    @Tim - Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words: finger quotes. – J.R. Sep 23 '13 at 17:02
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Shall we say X is employed to express a degree of diffidence or hesitation about X, a word or phrase the speaker is employing. Prosodically it is set apart from the rest of the utterance in which it embedded, because syntactically it is in fact an interruption.

Ordinarily X is the following term—shall we say X? But it may also be placed after the term, as in "X, shall we say?" In this case (regardless of how it is punctuated by the author) it is spoken, and demands to be understood, as if followed by a full stop. If I put either of these in a script for an actor I would write it this way:

Your recent involvement with certain church ... shall we say mysteries? OR
Your recent involvement with certain church ... mysteries, shall we say?

In your example the speaker is underscoring the fact that he is employing a euphemism for or indirect allusion to previous events (in The DaVinci Code); he is asking for his hearer's understanding of and assent to the not-completely-explicit usage.

  • I suppose in OP's specific example it would be perverse to interpret shall we say as applying to "church", rather than "mysteries". But it's probably worth pointing out that in other contexts it can come after the word/expression it refers to (it does usually come first though). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 22 '13 at 19:13
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    @FumbleFingers Good point - I think I know how to fix. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 22 '13 at 20:31
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In such a context, "shall we say X" is used to indicate that the word is not really correct, but is understood by both speaker and listener as meaning something else, which they do not want to say. The literal meaning is kind of like "We will call Y X", although it is not accurate. I'm not too familiar with the film in question, but let's say the mysteries involve people disappearing, but the speaker and the listener actually both killed all the people who have "mysteriously" disappeared, so they are kind of ironically, and for the purpose of avoidance, going to call the murders "mysteries" instead.

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