The Grammarphobia Blog

Thanks for asking

Q: Why do so many people respond to a “Thank you” with an answering “Thank you”? Whatever happened to the traditional “You’re welcome”?

A: “You’re welcome,” the polite response to an expression of thanks, isn’t as traditional as you might think. It apparently didn’t show up in English until the 20th century, though the word “welcome” has been used this way since Elizabethan times.

We’ll get to “You’re welcome” in a bit, but first let’s discuss this business of a thankee thanking a thanker.

You’d be amazed at how many people write us about it. Saying “Thank YOU” in response to a “Thank you” is perhaps a small thing, but some people find it annoying or puzzling.

If it’s a sin, Pat is a sinner. Many readers of the blog have been bugged by her thanking Leonard Lopate in response to his thanking her for appearing on his WNYC show.

Pat now tries to avoid doing it. Why? Not because she sees anything wrong with the usage. Just because it brings in so many complaints!

Why thank Leonard? Pat says “You’re welcome” seems to imply that she’s doing Leonard a kindness by being on his show. But she feels the kindness is on his part, for inviting her.

These days Pat tries to say, “My pleasure,” or perhaps “Thank you for having me” (but some people object even to that).

She gladly says “You’re welcome” when someone thanks her for passing the salt, holding a door, picking up something that was dropped, and so on.

In cases like that, “You’re welcome” acknowledges that she did in fact do someone a favor, one she was happy to do.

We’ve had several postings about thanking a thanker, including one in 2007 and another in 2010. But your question gives us a chance to look at the history of “Thank you.”

The phrase “Thank you” (short for “I thank you”) first showed up in English in the 1400s. The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun:

“Thanke yow, lady,” quod I than,
“And thereof hertely I yow pray;
And I, as lowly as I can,
Wolle do yow servyse nyght and day;
And what ye byd me do or say.”

As we’re sure you know, the phrase hasn’t always been used thankfully. From the early 1900s, for example, it’s been used to mean pretty much the opposite, according to OED citations.

In The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), a children’s story by Edith Nesbit, a fire breaks out in a London theater, and the audience races for the doors. “No boys on burning decks for me, thank you,” one of the fleeing characters says.

The OED defines this sense of the phrase as “used to add emphasis to a preceding expression of a wish or opinion (usu. one implying a denial or refusal).”

And since the 1700s, Oxford says, the expression “Thank you for nothing” has been used ironically to indicate “that the speaker thinks he has got or been offered nothing worth thanks.”

Here’s an example from  William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair: “It’s you who want to introduce beggars into my family? Thank you for nothing, Captain.”

Interestingly, the polite answering phrase “You’re welcome” didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to published references in the OED. We touched on this in a posting in 2008.

The earliest reference in the OED is from a 1960 newspaper article, though the dictionary has one from a 1907 short story that’s quite close: “ ‘Thank you,’ said the girl, with a pleasant smile. ‘You’re quite welcome,’ said the skipper.

Although the expression “You’re welcome” is relatively recent, the language sleuth Barry Popik has traced the use of the word “welcome” in this sense back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an exchange from Othello (circa 1603):

“Lodovico: Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship.
“Desdemona: Your honour is most welcome.”

As with “Thank you,” the phrase “You’re welcome” has also been used ironically to refer to something that’s not welcome. This usage, however, is not in response to an expression of thanks.

Here’s an example from Summer Half, a 1937 novel by Angela Thirkell, one of our favorite writers: ‘Fine Old English Gentleman,’ said the applicant enthusiastically. ‘You are welcome to him.’ ”

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