Tag Archives: Etymology

How We Got “Please” and “Thank You” by Maria Popova

downloadWhy the line between politeness and bossiness is a linguistic mirage.

“A good thing to think about is what kind of face to make when you say please,” Ruth Krauss wrote in her magnificent final collaboration with Maurice Sendak. “That coat will be the last gift [your mother] gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you,” Cheryl Strayed counseled in her endlessly soul-stirring Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. But how did these commonest of courtesies, “please” and “thank you,” actually originate? That’s precisely what anthropologist and activist David Graeber explores in one of the most absorbing semi-asides in his altogether illuminating Debt: The First 5,000 Years (public library):

Debt … is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion.

It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality. . . . But isn”t that just the same old story, starting with the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definitions, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?

No. All human interactions are not forms of exchange. Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation.

Graeber goes on to offer a counterexample via the history of two of our most common cultural habits of civility:

Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying “please” and “thank you.” To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it, just as the moral guardians of our society — teachers and ministers, for instance — do to everybody else. We often assume that the habit is universal, but … it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.manners-are-free-say-please-thankyou

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10 Words You Didn’t Know Used to Be Dirty

dirtywordsDid you know that a “hat” meant something else back in the day? September 17, 2014 By Esther Inglis-Arkell

We chortle today at the number of “ejaculations” in Sherlock Holmes stories, and laugh at how old newspaper stories describe the “erection” of skyscrapers. But previous generations would snicker just as hard at us. A look at archaic slang shows that we say a lot of very suggestive things without knowing it.

Here are ten terms that were once quite dirty, and are now mostly harmless.

10. Earnest

This is going to be the most controversial entry on the list. The Importance of Being Earnestis Oscar Wilde’s most popular play. Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality soon after the play came out. Since then, in literary circles, it has been whispered that “earnest” or “ernest” was a code word for homosexuality. The whispers compounded, claiming that “Cecily,” the name of one of the characters, was slang for a young male prostitute, and “bunburying,” the act of inventing a sick friend so one could get out of social obligations, was a sly reference to gay sex. All of these claims are hotly disputed by many, including two of the actors who acted in the original play. They called it nonsense. On the other hand some people have found suggestive references to “Earnist,” in 19th century documents. The major piece of evidence in favor of the cheeky version of the name comes from a classmate of Wilde’s. John Gambril Nicholson was at Oxford with Wilde, and towards the end of the century came out with a book of homosexual love poetry called Love in Earnest. You decide if Wilde was going for a double meaning.

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