23 September 2013

Please and Thank You


In English, we say these words all the time (hopefully!) and we teach our children them at an early age, but did you ever wonder where these two courtesies originated?


I discovered the etymologies of “please” and “thank you”in an unlikely place - a book titled Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber . Graeber is an anthropologist and the book goes against conventional wisdom by showing that before there was money, there was debt.

But, on to the words...

Our English “please” is short for the phrase “if you please” and “if it pleases you to do this.” It is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor).

Graeber says that its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.”  When someone says "Would you please hold the door open for me?" you are under no obligation to do so. Well, maybe there a "social obligation" but this little informal order isn't quite an order with that please attached to it.

I would not have guessed that the English, “thank you” derives from “think.  In fitting with Graeber's actual book topic,  the original idea was to mean “I will remember what you did for me” and in other languages (Portuguese obrigado for example) it is frequently like the English “much obliged” which does imply that "I am in your debt.”

The French merci is even more obvious coming from “mercy” (as in begging for mercy).

Related phrases are “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) suggests that there is no debt.

Graeber points out that in history “please” and “thank you” only came into common usgae  with the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and mostly among the middle classes. It became part of the languages of shops, and offices, and later spread to general usage.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder why you left out what I think is the crucial insight of Graeber's reasoning, namely that the habit of saying please and thank you is a specifically middle class habit, that is, the habit of a class that sees society as constructed of autonomous individuals who enter relations of exchange which cancel each other out on the spot so that no lasting relationships/obligations remain...

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