The Grammarphobia Blog

No problemo?

Q: Since when did “no problem” or “not a problem” become an acceptable substitute for “you’re welcome”? Go into ANY restaurant, request that your server bring you extra sauce for your shrimp cocktail, and you’ll hear one of those problematic responses in 8 out of 10 instances. Thank you for allowing me to vent my frustration!

A: This is a tic (like “have a nice day”) that will probably go away eventually. But we’ll all be retired to our rocking chairs by then, and complaining about a whole new set of verbal tics.

The expression “no problem,” meaning OK or thanks, has been with us for half a century at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first published reference in the OED is in a 1955 collection of letters between the writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.

The OED citation I like best, however, is in Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1977): “Finally, every time I emptied my glass, he took it, put more whisky in it, and gave it back to me, saying ‘No problem’ again through his nose.”

I can’t find a reference in the OED for the phrase “not a problem” used this way. But the dictionary does have quite a few published references dating back to 1985 for the ersatz Spanish “no problemo” (the actual Spanish word is problema).

As you might image, the word “problem” itself is quite old, appearing in the first complete English translation of the Bible (the Wycliffe version of about 1382).

Some of the more recent expressions in the OED that use the word are “problem child” (1920), “problem-oriented” (1946), “problem hair” (1967), and “problem dandruff” (1997).

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