Languages Magazine

The Reason We Say "Please" & "Thank You"

By Expectlabs @ExpectLabs

Saying “please” and “thank you” is what most people believe to be the true mark of a civilized society. But how did these pleasantries come into practice?

In David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years,he writes that it wasn’t until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the middle class began peppering their language with these expressions, first starting in public places, and eventually spreading to the home. Saying “please” and “thank you” is more than mere etiquette — it is a recognition of our humanity.

The etymology of each phrase reveals even more about our motivations for using them:

"The English “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this” — it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.” “Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!” This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply.” 

"In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true either — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does mean “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor”s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal.” 

(via Debt: The First 5,000 Years & Brain PickingsImage via Portland Art)

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