Etymology Usage

At whose earliest convenience?

Q: Have you noticed that the voicemail messages at businesses now promise to return your call at their earliest convenience? This is an obvious screw-up of the polite request that the caller asks the called one. Egad.

A: We’re glad you brought up this “earliest convenience” business, because we have our own story to report.

Just the other day, we called the dog groomer to make an appointment for our standard poodle, Mimi. The message on the groomer’s answering machine concluded: “We will call you back at our earliest convenience.”

Hey! The convenience is supposed to be on the recipient’s part, not on the speaker’s.

A person who’s leaving a message should say something like, “I’d appreciate a response at your earliest convenience,” or “Please ask the doctor to call me at her earliest convenience.”

And the message on an answering machine should say, “We will call you at our earliest opportunity,” not “at our earliest convenience.” (Better still, “We’ll call you as soon as we can.”)

It’s not very gracious to suggest that your own convenience is uppermost in your mind (even if it is). But big companies often imply as much. And small businesses too, as we learned the other day.

Business voicemail systems—particularly when there are endless “menus” to listen to—are inherently ungracious. By their very nature, they make you feel like an inconvenience.

And a business that says its representatives are busy at the moment and will call you back at THEIR earliest convenience is really too much.

If the people who concoct these voicemails had to sit and stew on the other end of the line, perhaps things would change.

Enough grumbling. Let’s take a moment to look at the noun “convenience,” which meant agreement when it entered English in the early 1400s.

It comes from the Latin convenire (to come together or agree), which also gave us the adjective “convenient.”

That early sense of “convenience” as agreement is now considered obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a somewhat similar sense is alive and well: suitability or something that’s suitable.

The sense of convenience that you’ve asked about—an opportune occasion or opportunity—didn’t show up until the 17th century.

The OED has only two published references for the expression “at your earliest convenience.”

The earliest of them is from an 1832 letter by Charles Dickens: You will perhaps oblige me with a line at your earliest convenience.”

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