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Saturday, February 13, 2016

No problem

A Wordlady reader poses the following question, which I am often asked about:
I have noticed lately that “you’re welcome” seems to have been replaced by sayings such as “not a problem” or “no problem”. Do you think “you’re welcome” is on its way out?    
There are a number of interesting aspects to this question.

First of all, the fact that "you're welcome" has not always been our way of replying to an expression of thanks. In fact, the earliest example I could find is just over 150 years old, not much in the history of the language: 

Date 1862
Title Davy Crockett
Author Murdoch, Frank, 1843-1872.

Eleanor Oh, no, I like to have my saddle with me. No, I mean I thank you very much. Davy. You 're welcome, miss --
Date 1886
Title The Henrietta
Author Howard, Bronson, 1842-1908.

 Bertie Vanalstyne But I love you now more than I ever did before I had suffered so much. I would like to kiss you, please. (Agnes looks up, offers her cheek; Bertie makes movement to kiss her, hesitates, then raises her hand to his lips and kisses it, saying --) Thank you. Agnes (sadly). You 're welcome!

Slightly (but only slightly) earlier is "Don't mention it."

Date 1843
Title The Two Clerks; or, The Orphan's Gratitude: Being the Adventures of Henry Fowler and Richard Martin . .
Author Duganne, A. J. H. (Augustine Joseph Hickey), 1823-1884

"Ha, my dear Fred., is it you? Jove, my boy. I didn't know it -- how are you -- " " I will tell you all, Ned. But first let me thank you for my wife Ned, may -- " " Hang it, don't mention it

I have not been able to determine what people said in this circumstance before the 1840s. If you should happen to know, please pass it along.

A fairly recent addition has been "My pleasure":
. IF

Date 1949
Publication information [Play script]
Title Detective Story
Author Kingsley, Sidney, 1906-1995
BRODY is a huge man, deceptively obese and clumsy in appearance; bald-headed, ugly, carbuncled face, lit up, however, by sad; soft, gentle eyes. He hands one bag to DAKIS. DETECTIVE LOU BRODY Here you are, Nick! DETECTIVE NICHOLAS DAKIS I appreciate that. DETECTIVE LOU BRODY My pleasure. Here you are, Miss.

But clearly "No problem" is an upstart (although perhaps older than you might guess):

Date 1977
Publication information New York: W.W.Norton & Company
Title Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Author Ron Carlson
" I'll go straighten out the mess. " I said. " Thanks, Larry, that's great of you. " " No problem, Randy, " I said.

Date 1982
Title True Love
Author Herbert Gold
Mickelsson said sternly, " It's been a bad year for you, Nugent. I'm very sorry. " " Well, " Nugent said, and sniffled. Abruptly he stood up. " Thank you, " he said, for an instant meeting Mickelsson's gaze. " No problem," Mickelsson said, and waved his pipe. " Any time I can be of help... " 

"Not a problem" is even more recent:

Date 2001
Publication information New York : Simon & Schuster,
Title Addicted /
Author Zane.
" Mr. Wallace, I really appreciate you helping me out like this. My daddy's always working, and I never thought I'd have it done in time for the Cub Scout Derby next week. " What an ass kisser! My daddy patted Jason on the head like he was a Doberman pinscher, which he kind of resembled, I might add. " Not a problem, Jason. I love working with my hands.

Some people get very upset about their interlocutors responding, "No problem!" to an expression of thanks. The usual argument is, "SOOOOO! Wouldn't you have done it if it HAD been a problem??"

I admit that when a cashier gives me change, I say, "Thank you," and she says, "No problem," I have a moment where I think, "Well OBVIOUSLY it was no problem!" But I find some people's virulent reaction to what is, after all, just a polite formula, not to be taken literally, quite puzzling. 

I know it is because this particular issue is one where language usage and etiquette overlap. We older folks learned (in fact, had drummed into us at an early age) a certain politeness code ("You're welcome!"), and when that code is not observed, we find it shocking. When I was a teenager, I had a job where I was waiting on many people from North Dakota. I was shocked to the core by the fact that when I said, "Thank you" to them they replied, "Uh-huh." How rude is that, thought I. Since then, however, I have learned that this is a regionalism in the midwestern US and no more shocking to them than the fact that they call a small paper bag a sack.

But think for a moment if people had similar literal reactions to some of the other polite formulas we have mentioned:
"Thank you!"
"Don't mention it."

"How dare you tell me not to mention it? I DID mention it, dammit!!"
"Thank you."

"It was nothing."

"Why are you suggesting it was nothing? If it had been something, would you not have done it?"
 "Thank you."
"My pleasure."

"I don't care if it was your pleasure!"

not to mention...

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"I didn't ask if I was welcome, I was expressing my thanks!"
To return to the original question, I don't know if "You're welcome" is on its way out. It may well be, but it's still well represented on the spoken part of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, where "You're welcome" is still a much more frequent response than "No problem" to "Thank you" in radio and TV interviews. But the latter is definitely there. As usual, I think there are much weightier problems in the world to worry about than whether people say "No problem" rather than "You're welcome".

What do YOU say in response to "Thank you"? Do you, ahem, have a problem with "No problem"? If you have children, what do you tell them to respond to "Thank you"?

UPDATE: I just thanked someone for following me on twitter (@thewordlady if you want to do the same), and what was their response? "np", i.e.... "no problem". Another evolution.

For a discussion of another polite formula that is undergoing a change (do you say "I'm well" or "I'm good" when someone says "How are you?"), click here.

PS: Here's an interesting tidbit I found on Lynne Murphy's blog, separatedbyacommonlanguage
 several researchers ...have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a 'minimizer' like no problem, my pleasure, or you're welcome.  

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1 comment:

  1. I've heard a lot of people reply "sure" to "thank you," but often followed by "no problem."


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.