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Thanks, Fanx, ‘kyou — Thanks-Giving, Brit Style

November 29, 2009

In keeping with the recently observed American holiday, MizParse, the AngloFiles language lady, offers a few thoughts on British expressions of gratitude:

“You will notice in England that we say ‘thank you’ a lot,” advises the Woodlands Junior School’s charming Project Britain website. The remark itself shows characteristic British understatement. Britons say thank you all the time, in fact, exceeded perhaps, only by Americans. (Continentals — and Israelis, too — find all Anglophones excessively polite. For instance, the Spanish think we “use please and thank you so much as to make these words almost redundant,” reports Notes from Spain.)

The words most commonly heard on English public transport, “writes British anthropologist Kate Fox in her delightful book, Watching the English, “apart from ‘sorry,’ are ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (the latter often shortened to ‘anks’ or ”Kyou’).” Not only do passengers say it when they board and pay, she writes, “but many passengers also thank the bus driver again when they get off at their stop.”

Thank-you notes, too, are a British staple, best exemplified by the punctilious Diana, Princess of Wales, who wrote thank-you notes to hosts the instant she returned from a party or event. Diana famously lavished gratitude on everyone from the high-born to hair dressers and valets. “I’d watch the princess write letters at Kensington Palace,” writes Paul Burrell, her former butler, in A Royal Duty. “She always used a gold-nibbed fountain pen … She wrote all her correspondence — personal letters, thank-you notes, and memos — in that way.”

As in most encounters, though, the Brits tend to disdain the sort of gushing, effusive thanks we Yanks specialize in, Fox notes. Theirs tend to be briefer, ironic and less emotional, in keeping with what she terms “the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule.” If England awarded Oscars, the telecasts would run a lot shorter: Right. Thanks. Quite nice of the Academy. Can’t imagine why I’m up here, in fact — must have been some sort of cock-up in the vote counts…  Er, yes, well, anyway, thanks. Er, very much.

In gratitude, however, as in other British remarks, deprecation isn’t necessarily self-directed. A teen-aged Jessica Mitford wrote her sister Nancy from a sort of finishing school in Paris in 1933: “Thanks for curt note written on a little bit of cardboard purporting to be a p.c. [postcard].” As thanks for a congratulatory note many years later, Nancy Mitford herself wrote Evelyn Waugh, “Your  odious letter was on my breakfast table on the morning of my 60th birthday.”

Aw, shucks. Glad you liked it?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    December 1, 2009 10:40 pm

    I was standing in the queue in a post office in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, when the young man in front of me said to the clerk, “have a nice day.” As soon as he left the post office, the clerk started mocking him for saying “have a nice day.” She said, derisively, “He must have spent time in America.” The ordinary American pleasantry was almost offensive to her.

    • December 2, 2009 9:33 pm

      It’s all relative, Rob. MizParse can remember a time here in the States, back in the 1970s, when Oldsters (er, like Herself, now) were complaining about “have a nice day.” Insincere, they sneered. Inauthentic. They also hated those ubiquitous yellow smiley faces. One of the era’s most ironic icons, in fact, was a not-so-smiley “smiley” with a straight line mouth and the invocation, “Have a Day.”

      These things go in waves, though. “Have a nice day” seems to have given way this side of the pond to “take care” and even “take good care” which, with its super-touchy-feely overtones, would REALLY irritate that Kenilworth postmistress.

      MizParse, to tell the truth, can be crankier about these things than anyone. Her latest bugaboo? “No problem” in lieu of “you’re welcome.”

      Signing off with an oldie that’s come back into fashion, stateside, we’ll just say:

      Cheers!

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