The Grammarphobia Blog

How intimate is Dear Mr. Smith?

Q: There’s a debate on an editors’ listserv about the use of “dear” in salutations for business letters. Is it too intimate to address a client as “Dear Mr. Smith”? And what is the history of this word in correspondence?

A: We’ve had a small flurry of questions about letter-writing lately, including one about indenting the salutation and the following paragraphs. Maybe the epistolary tradition is having a comeback!

There’s nothing wrong with using “dear” in letter salutations, even in business correspondence. The use of “dear” doesn’t necessarily imply an intimate or affectionate connection, as we’ll explain.

The adjective “dear” is an ancient word. It was recorded (as deoare) in Old English as far back as around 725, when it meant precious, valuable, or costly.

But it has even older cousins in other Germanic languages. The ancestor of them all is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic word that scholars have reconstructed as deurijaz (costly), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The word “dear” (or its Old English equivalents) was applied to people early on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest meaning was esteemed or valued, not loved, the OED says, “but the passage of the one notion into the other is too gradual to admit of their separation.”

In addressing one another, English speakers have been using “dear” since the Middle Ages. And then, as now, the word could be used either intimately or formally.

For example, the OED has citations for its use “in addressing a person, in affection or regard,” dating back to the 1300s or perhaps earlier (as in “Father dear,” or “my dear friend”).

But the “dear” that we use in letters (and, if we’re so inclined, in emails) can be regarded as either intimate, friendly, or formal, depending on the context.

The tradition of using “dear” in letters dates from the mid-15th century.

It was first recorded, according to OED citations, in a letter beginning “Right dere and welbeloved,” written in 1450 by Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI.

As the OED says, uses of “dear” in letters—as in “Dear Father,” “Dear John,” and so on—“are still affectionate and intimate, and made more so by prefixing My.”

But, Oxford continues, “Dear Sir (or Dear Mr. A.) has become since the 17th c. the ordinary polite form of addressing an equal.”

And not just equals.

Our handy copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin, recommends that letters to dignitaries include greetings like “Dear Governor Stately,” “Dear Mr. President,” “Dear Mayor Tuff,” and (to a corporate bigwig) “Dear Mr. Pious.”

Who would dare argue with Miss Manners?

By the way, people still occasionally use “dear” in the old sense of pricey, as in “This Hermès ‘Kelly’ bag is gorgeous, but at $10,000 it comes very dear.”

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