385: “No, Thank YOU!”20 July, 2012
“No; Thank You!”
Have you noticed? That old favorite, “You’re welcome,” is in the kind of decline normally associated with oil reserves or public morality. Until recently, it was very simple: the mandatory response to “Thank you” was “You’re welcome,” or perhaps “Don’t mention it.” This was as formulaic as “How are you?” / “Fine, and you?” But the formula doesn’t work any more.
My unwelcome adventures began some time back when a young shop clerk, after my perfunctory “Thank you,” replied with an equally perfunctory “Thank you,” herself. I was momentarily taken aback. Should I tell her “You’re welcome”? Or, having unexpectedly received a thanking myself, should I then respond with another “Thank you,” or “No, thank you; I insist!” leading to an endless volley of thanking, with both parties finally up to their ears in thank. I was saved from this dilemma when it became clear that she expected no response from me at all, and had in fact turned to the next customer, consigning me to the category “thanked and done with.”
The next step in this evolutionary decline occurred two or three years later, and was equally unwelcome: “Thank you” / “No problem!” to which I was tempted to say “My heavens, did you really think I’d be a problem and are happily surprised I’m not?” But I forbore. The incident was not isolated, and I encounter many people these days who seem to have no problems. How I envy them.
Today, “Thank you” / “Thank you,” and Thank you” / “No problem,” co-exist. They jostle to live and reproduce. One or both may survive, or perhaps be supplanted by some newly evolved locution better suited to superfice.
All this linguistic change, disturbing to one who thinks it all went downhill after the Romans took up Greek and mangled it badly, leads me to think: What are we saying here, really?
Consider: “Thank you” means “I thank you”. Thanking is what philosophers call a “performative,” meaning that the words themselves do the trick. “I’m giving you a million dollars” is not a performative, because just saying the words doesn’t improve your cash flow. But someone’s saying “Thank you” automatically results in being thanked, a kind of secular blessing. “You’re welcome” is a little more complicated: if you think about it a minute, it must mean “I welcomed the opportunity to do whatever it was you thanked me for,” perhaps with a hint of “And you’re welcome to ask a service of me again.” ─ But “You’re welcome” is seldom heard now, at least sparing us the hint that there reference is to my “welcome,” a body part I never knew I had.
I finally had to admit that “You’re welcome” was really dead when I tried looking it up in the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary and received the response “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.” The dictionary offered a few “suggestions” in case I had mis-spelled the term I was thinking of, or had somehow got my hands crossed on the keyboard as young Mozart liked to do:
I don’t know what “Alcamo” means — a sort of oarlock, I suppose, or perhaps earlock. “Urologic” and “alarum” do fit nicely together; I’ll remember that at my next medical check-up. Even-handedly, Merriam-Webster also has no entry for “No problem,” but they do suggest I use “nonverbal” instead, which may be the dictionary-maker’s revenge on vacuous sayings.
Many things we now say without thinking used to have real meanings, used to say something thoughtful and personal. Subversively, words and phrases still do carry their real meanings around willy nilly, even if most people have forgot them. Words have hidden power; just mean what you say.
Notes to the reader: (a) “Superfice” dates from 1678 in the sense intended, but is now not much used. (b) “Willy nilly” has been corrupted in popular use. See the 1st American Heritage Dictionary, or the Merriam-Webster 6th NCD, for the true and only meaning. (c) “Forgot,” as a past participle used in place of “forgotten,” is ancient and legitimate, although rare in the U.S.