The Grammarphobia Blog

Problem child

Q: I hope you can do something about a recent trend in American language: the use of “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome” or “yes.” If I’m in a restaurant and ask for an extra napkin, the server says “no problem.” Why do I need to be told I’m not a problem? Am I the only person who finds “no problem” a problem?

A: No, you’re not the only person who has a problem with “no problem.” But it’s no use hoping I can “do something about” it. I can only explain, maybe illuminate. I can’t stem the tides.

Although many people seem to think this usage originated recently among the younger generation, it’s actually been around since the mid-1950s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “no problem” as a colloquial phrase that can mean either of two things: (1) that whatever is being referred to is “simple” or “acceptable” or “not problematic”; (2) that one is agreeing, acquiescing, or acknowledging a “thank you.”

Here are the dictionary’s first two citations:

1955, in a letter written by Ralph Ellison to Albert Murray: “No problem on haircuts here. Moroccans come in all textures. No problem there either.”

1973, from Martin Amis’s novel The Rachel Papers: “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.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists “no problem” as an idiom used “to express confirmation of or compliance with a request.”

The American Heritage’s usage panel apparently has no problem with it. I don’t either. It may be used a bit too much, but so are many common idioms, such as the American expression “You’re welcome.”

By the way, “You’re welcome” (generally not used in British English) isn’t much older than “no problem,” in the grand scheme of things. The first published use of “You’re welcome” in response to thanks was recorded in 1907, according to the OED.

Other cultures have many idiosyncratic ways of acknowledging thanks. Examples: “no worries” in Australia; “no hay de qué” or “de nada” or “no hay problema” by various Spanish speakers; “prego” in Italian; “bitte” in German; and ”de rien” in French. 

In Britain, the standard response is quite often no response at all. And if you’ve seen the Disney animated film The Lion King, you’ll remember “Hakuna Matata,” a lively song with music by Elton John and words by Tim Rice. The title means “no worries” in Swahil (in other words, “no problem”).

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