45

I came across a dialog between two people struggling on a cutting the line situation. Here is the dialogue:

A: Hey man, the end of the line is over there.
B: Yeah...
A: No seriously, I was here first, and you can’t cut in the line like this.
B: Says who?
A: I do!
B: So sue me!
A: Alright...that’s it....

(and here they start to punch each other!!!)

When I looked it up in my dictionary, it says that the meaning of sue is to make a legal claim against someone because they have harmed you in some way.

But I'm pretty sure that the sue me expression has a different meaning in this context.

Please help me out!

  • 4
    It just means "Make something of it (if you dare)." – Mick Nov 21 '16 at 16:54
  • 6
    See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sosumi – Daniel Sparing Nov 22 '16 at 9:01
  • 1
    Hang on... Where in the world are you that people cut in!? – Tim Nov 22 '16 at 11:19
  • 3
    It's worth noticing that 'sue me' is a very American idiom, possibly reflecting the excessively litigious nature of stateside culture. – AJFaraday Nov 25 '16 at 13:24
  • @AJFaraday Agreed. – Teacher KSHuang Dec 20 '16 at 8:33
70

Actually "sue me" means exactly what your dictionary says. It's kind of "fighting words" that imply the speaker does not apologize for his actions, and the only option the other guy has is to take him to court.

Which is silly, of course, because you can't sue someone for cutting into a line (or, as the British say, a queue). So in your example the offended person takes the next more extreme available option, which is to start a fight.

"Sue me" is actually relatively polite. There are many less polite options:

Kiss my ass!

Go to hell!

Piss off!

And the list goes downhill from there.

  • 18
    Actually, you probably could sue someone for queue barging, it's just that the damages caused by such an action are generally not worth it; which is the point of the statement. In most cases, nobody will go to the trouble of dragging a dispute over who was first all the way through the courts, and if they do the damages will be so trivial that it will be a mostly pointless exercise. – Perkins Nov 22 '16 at 0:51
  • 30
    Clarification: It's only polite in relation to the other examples, it is not a remotely polite thing to say. – SBoss Nov 22 '16 at 9:24
  • 10
    Of course in Britain it remains (along with piracy of the high seas) one of the few crimes punishable by hanging. – Strawberry Nov 22 '16 at 13:38
  • 6
    The British, and every software engineer on the planet. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 22 '16 at 14:09
  • 3
    There's also the implication that you need to go to the police/courts to resolve it because you aren't powerful enough to resolve it yourself. So there's an implied insult in there too. – corsiKa Nov 22 '16 at 23:07
38

Much of the humour of the English language is based in absurdity - we make statements that are extreme to show how absurd a situation is.

"So sue me!" falls into this category, in my opinion at least. It's a defiant challenge to being called out on doing something wrong, and rather than showing remorse for this, the person being held accountable is being confrontational.

An example would be cutting the line at a supermarket register. If another customer challenged the person on their actions, their response might be "so sue me!" The point they are trying to make being "what are you going to do about it??" They are using the extreme "so sue me" (which would realistically never come to fruition) to highlight the futility of challenging their actions.

In the greater scheme of things, it's less being humorous, and more being an ass.

26

A literal expansion of the idiom would be something like, "You are technically correct, but I don't believe you'll be willing to take the actions necessary to enforce your point, so I don't care."

  • 3
    Exactly correct, Sheldon. – David Richerby Nov 22 '16 at 9:52
  • 14
    This isn't always true. Saying "sue me" doesn't necessarily imply you're admitting any wrongdoing. It can be used when the speaker feels they're right, and they're challenging the opponent to prove otherwise. – Samthere Nov 22 '16 at 10:59
  • 6
    you _might_ be technically correct would be more accurate. Since its not being enforced, the speaker doesn't even care if the point is valid or not - I think this distinction is quite important in this idiom. The speaker is putting the onus on the other to present a stronger argument, or to abandon his plea. – Sean Houlihane Nov 23 '16 at 11:06
  • There may be regional variations. Personally I have never heard it used to put the onus of proof on the other person. Phrases like, "Prove it," or, "Says who?" tend to be used for that. "Sue me," seems to fall more into the category of being a slightly less aggressive version of, "Make me," or "What're you going to do (about it)?" But, regional idiom varies greatly and changes frequently, and I won't pretend to be familiar with every piece of it. – Perkins Nov 29 '16 at 0:43
6

"So sue me" is always said sarcastically, defiantly, or humorously. Except I have heard of one time when it might have been said helpfully.

In the landmark case of Standing Bear vs Crook in 1879 Standing Bear and his group of Ponca Indians sued General George Crook to stay in their old homeland in Nebraska instead of being sent back to Indian Territory by the army at the orders of the Indian Department.

According to some accounts Thomas Tibbles who led the effort to keep the Poncas from being sent to Indian Territory said that the idea for the lawsuit came from General Crook himself. And thus it is possible that once in history "so sue me" or words to that effect might have been said seriously and helpfully.

3

The literal meaning is, as you say, a challenge to the listener that he take the speaker to court.

The actual meaning is clearly sarcastic ("a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain"). It is ironic because it is a "use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning". Indeed, the speaker expresses the opposite, namely "you cannot take me to court over this". There is no punishable offense, and even if there was one, the listener would not engage in a court case. The pain intended by the sarcasm, using the pedagogical effect irony can have, is to demonstrate to the listener that he is essentially helpless.

It is another way of saying "you cannot do a thing about it", but the listener has to come to this realization by himself. He does so only when he recognizes the irony, which is probably a somewhat painful moment. If you want you can see a mundane little glimpse of the Socratic method here.

The listener, I take it, didn't like the Socratic birthing pain of truth and wanted to share it with the speaker.

1

In my experience, 'so sue me' is more often used when there is, at least in the speaker's mind, some reason to believe they are in the right. How logical that is, like real lawsuits, depends on the individual.

I've often heard it used as an acknowledgement that the speaker's conduct isn't strictly ethical, but it would be unreasonably difficult to be so, and that they're taking the reasonable course.

Say a supplier of wire gets a 1000 foot order from a customer, and has a roll 999 ft long, and they know the customer's just going to cut lengths off the spool anyway. They might say to a third party, "I shipped the wire and didn't say anything. So sue me."

In this example, "so sue me" means "my conduct is within reasonable bounds, if not perfect. It'd be unreasonable to take action against me" (like filing a lawsuit, which would be unreasonably expensive and time consuming over a trifle like being shorted a foot of wire).

It's part of a general pattern of hyperbole in idiomatic English: I did so .

"I turned without using my signal. So throw me in jail." "I'm 5 minutes late one day a year. So fire me."

and a variation

"I'm 5 minutes late. Think they'll fire me?"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.