Most Sincerely Yours (Really)

MunchkinCoroner08f686cc-3224-4b53-bb05-003ed72fcbf2“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”

I’ve heard that line hundreds of times,  and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.

With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.

The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from the imagined presence of the recipient. Across the great age of letter writing, closers have been one of the ornamental marvels of those things on paper that people sent to one other.

Even today, the French remain—ça va sans dire—the masters of formal exits, having taken epistolary bowing and scraping to the level of science. I love French closes, with their odd verb forms and insistence that the recipient believe in the writer’s sentiments.

Veuillez  agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes salutations  distinguées.

In our own time—frantic, productive, and impoverished all at once—many of us are caught in the dilemma of structuring appropriate closers to thousands of communications a year, some still on paper, but mostly written messages that travel by electronic transfer.

Recent conversations among the Twitterati have suggested that at least on e-mail, polite closers (and headers) are things of the leisurely past. But closing habits die hard.

Epistolary closes are a bit like fashion, and in a world without uniforms, getting fashion right can be difficult. In normal, businesslike, academic correspondence, we’re likely to swing between casual wear (You be good. Take care. Thanks again! Love to everybody. Till soon. Best. Mwah) and conservative formality  (Very truly yours. Sincerely).

On a given deany workday I might be, among other things, yours, yours truly, very truly yours, yours sincerely, or cordially. I don’t mwah much, but I best  a lot.

On e-mail, epistolary fashion is up for grabs. Many academic writers stray into the weird, the huggy, the self-consciously odd. I have a professor friend who signs his email  ”Bestest,” which violates rules of grammar and common sense. It’s unique to him and charming in its way, but I don’t long for more bestests in my inbox, even though such neologisms might just be the closer’s last chance.

For the closer is an endangered species in the wild kingdom of writing. We’re all being weaned off these little moments of personal, electronic grace.

Somewhere there is a well-paid consulting agency calculating how much a corporation loses in work time when its thousand employees stop to close a message, and another calculating which closer is right for automated responses.

Do we need closers at all? The death of the author has proved premature, but the parlous state of formal signoffs is a medical fact. Perhaps it’s time to send in the coroner after all.

As for the Munchkin, we remember that his primary function is to certify the death of the woman lying underneath a perfectly nice Kansas farmhouse.

In a film about dreams, frauds, and wishes, he’s the story’s only persuasive arbiter of official documents and the formal language they contain.

I for one have faith that the sentiments he expresses on that busy Oz intersection are the most distinguished and are offered to us in all sincerity. And I will close with that.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano



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