What Ever Happened to ‘You’re Welcome’?

Hakuna Matata: "It means no worries for the rest of your days."

In this holiday run-up, let’s give, not only thanks, but some attention to what one says after being thanked. My observation is that the traditional you’re welcome is as passé as turducken with canned gravy. The roster of alternatives has an Eskimos-words-for-snow-level capaciousness. (And yes, I know this notion is an apocryphal urban legend, but I just can’t quit it, so deal.) Just off the top of my head, there’s:

Sure thing/sure, you bet/you betcha, you got it, that’s why I’m here (shout-out to James Taylor), my pleasure/the pleasure is mine, don’t mention it, not at all, no biggie, no problem/no problema/no probs, of course!, and the all-time favorite of NPR interviewees, thank YOU!

It intrigues me that we have so many words, while Italian has a mere fraction of a word: that is, prego, which means not only you’re welcome, but also please; you go in before me; and I would be delighted if you took some of this food. I leave the interpretation to wiser heads than mine.

Back to English, I have saved for special attention the probably most popular and definitely most annoying alternatives, not a problem! (characteristically voiced in a do-do-sol-mi singsong) and the Australian import no worries (after which I always expect to hear mate!). What they have in common, and what triggers the annoyance, is the ungracious implication that the action inspiring the thanks was even potentially burdensome. I always feel like replying, “Of course it’s not a problem—what gave you the idea it might be?”

I am surprised to find that you’re welcome is a relatively recent formulation. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1907, but a little searching on Google Books yielded this quote from an unsigned article that appeared in Charles Dickens’s journal All the Year Round in 1864:

The toll-keeper seemed to be also conscious of the touching and pitiful nature of the occasion. For the first time since I, the independent Briton, had, to my cost, known him, he spoke civilly, and, in giving me change out of sixpence, actually said, “Thank you, sir.” Not to be outdone in this respect, I said, “You’re very welcome, I’m sure, for it is the last twopence I shall pay you.”

Dickens was a connoisseur of all kinds of expressions of manners, sincere and otherwise. He presents two common you’re welcome equivalents in just one passage from Martin Chuzzlewit (1843):

“Thank you,” said Tom’s sister heartily : “a thousand times.”

“Not at all,” he retorted, patting her gently on the head. “Don’t mention it. You will make me angry if you do.”

The Victorian-era popularity of the latter expression is suggested by this quote from an 1870 issue of The Defender: “I tried to reply, and began, ‘I’m sure I thank you,’—but they broke me off with ‘Don’t mention it! don’t mention it! don’t mention it.’

I couldn’t find many other thank you responses in my admittedly abbreviated Google Books excursion. That led me to reflect that for the bulk of modern Western life, thank you was directed not at waiters, recommendation-writers, and other people acting helpfully or thoughtfully toward us, but at the deity. And what does the deity say after being thanked? Nothing. One imagines, if anything, a graceful smile, with an implied “That’s why I’m here. Never “Not a problem!”

All that is why I’m starting the NVYW (Non-Verbal You’re Welcome) movement. From now on, I plan to acknowledge thank yous with a smile and a slight bow, possibly an arms-extended I-am-not-worthy gesture. Please feel free to join me.

But if you don’t like the idea? No worries, mate.

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