Q: Can you please explain the silly expression “thank you kindly.” It seems sort of self-congratulatory!
A: In an early edition (1921) of his book The American Language, H. L. Mencken suggests that “thank you kindly” was brought to America by Irish immigrants who were “almost incapable of saying plain yes or no” and “must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration.”
“The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart,” Mencken adds. “The American borrowed, not only occasional words, but whole phrases, and some of them have become thoroughly naturalized.”
He notes that P. W. Joyce, author of English as We Speak It in Ireland (1910), “shows the Irish origin of scores of locutions that are now often mistaken for native Americanisms, for example, great shakes, dead (as an intensive), thank you kindly, to split one’s sides (i. e., laughing), and the tune the old cow died of, not to mention many familiar similes and proverbs.”
Interestingly, the expression “thank you kindly” doesn’t appear in my 1937 edition of Mencken’s book. Perhaps he changed his mind about its origins.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any other references that might explain the expression, which is undoubtedly odd, rather like greeting someone with “Hello expectantly” or saying farewell with “Goodbye reluctantly.”
Though I can’t shed much light, I can pass on a poem, called “Graciousness,” that appeared in The English Journal in 1967:
I’d like to spank
Those oafs behindly
Who don’t just “thank…”
But “thank you kindly.”
– A. S. Flaumenhaft, Far Rockaway, New York