When I ran for student council treasurer in high school, my opponent was Ben, our 6’3 star basketball center. His nickname, of course, was “Big Ben” so all his campaign posters incorporated London’s Big Ben.
My campaign manager was a kid who sat next to me in homeroom, very bright but quite unpopular for reasons I couldn’t understand. We brainstormed as to how we could highlight my name on posters and subtly disparage his. “Hey,” I said, “how about: ‘Why settle for Big Ben when you can vote for jolly old Engel-land?’”
“Well, aren’t you the clever one?” he lazily declared.
“Thank you!” I earnestly responded.
“Oh,” he drawled, “so you ALSO think you’re the clever one!”
Ah, now I knew why his cafeteria lunch table was usually reserved for one only. But he did make me revisit the wisdom of responding to a compliment with a ‘thank you’ but without adding a modest qualifier. I switched to “Oh, you’re too kind” after that, and it has served me well.
I should have known modesty is the best policy just by remembering how native speakers responded when I thanked them for a kind deed or service in Spain and France —“de nada” and “de rien” respectively, both meaning “Oh, it was nothing.” What a lovely, self-effacing way to acknowledge thanks.
But nobody beats the Italians for graciousness in this category. I’m sure you all know that their word for “thanks” is “grazie,” but did you know it derives from the Latin word for the spontaneous gift of divine favor — “grace” — of course, in English.
And their response to “grazie” is just as divinely inspired: “prego!” It literally means “I pray.” Thus, their “thank you,” is saying “I wish upon you God’s grace” and their “you’re welcome” is short for “I pray that your kind wishes for me will come true.” Talk about a lovely exchange: but would we expect anything less from the language of the Popes and all those divine operas?
But now we must reckon with that most peculiar and anything-but-divinely inspired expression in English: “you’re welcome.” Huh? Welcome to WHAT? It seems a totally appropriate comment when opening your front door to visitors or perhaps when allowing someone to peruse your library or stamp collection. But it makes little or no sense as a reply to being thanked.
But leave it to us English speakers to attempt an imitation of the gracious European “It was nothing” and yet miss by a mile. Starting in about the 1990’s, I’m sure you noticed that if you thanked a young person, especially a waitperson, the response was invariably “No problem!”
Personally, I’d say that “No problem!” is as clunky-sounding a substitute for “Oh, it was nothing” as “Hey, man, I owe ya one!” is for “thank you.”
I remember once being in a diner that had seen better days when I noticed water leaking from the ceiling directly above my table. I called the very young waiter over and began with “I think there’s a problem…” but before I could even finish the sentence he cut in with a cheerfully mechanical “No problem!” When the ceiling leak immediately dripped onto his short spiky hair, I think he just might have finally understood the woeful deficiency of his dumb and cheeky response.
And so, my dear readers, I have beneficently gifted you this morning with a linguistic dissertation on painfully proper verbal etiquette.
HEY, MAN, YOU OWE ME ONE!