why do we say please and thank you

In English, we say these words all the time (hopefully! ) and we teach our children them at an early age, but did you ever wonder where these two courtesies originated? I discovered the etymologies of please and thank you in an unlikely place - a book titled. Graeber is an anthropologist and the book goes against conventional wisdom by showing that before there was money, there was debt. But, on to the words. Our English please is short for the phrase if you please and if it pleases you to do this. It is the same in most European languages (French
si il vous plait, Spanish por favor ). Graeber says that its literal meaning is you are under no obligation to do this. When someone says "Would you please hold the door open for me? " you are under no obligation to do so. Well, maybe there a "social obligation" but this little informal order isn't quite an order with that please attached to it. I would not have guessed that the English, thank you derives from think.


In fitting with Graeber's actual book topic, the original idea was to mean I will remember what you did for me and in other languages (Portuguese obrigado for example) it is frequently like the English much obliged which does imply that "I am in your debt. The French merci is even more obvious coming from mercy (as in begging for mercy). Related phrases are you re welcome, or it s nothing (French de rien, Spanish de nada ) suggests that there is no debt. Graeber points out that in history please and thank you only came into common usgae with the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and mostly among the middle classes. It became part of the languages of shops, and offices, and later spread to general usage. Why do we say please and thank you? I mean, I understand it s polite; it s a standard form of common courtesy in a civilized society, but why those words specifically? Where did we get those particular words for polite requests and gratitude?


I don t want to get too philosophical here, but it s all about freedom and social contracts. In the age of feudalism (say, between the 9 centuries), the lord of the manor issued orders to the serfs who worked for him. We can assume that please and thank you did not figure prominently in his vocabulary. But then came the Age of Enlightenment (say, around the mid-17 century, leading up to the French Revolution), when the focus shifted to the rights of the individual. Social contract theory argues that societies formed because individuals agreed to surrender some of their natural freedoms to a government or majority rule in return for security and protection from tyrants or enemies. The alternative would be a state of anarchy. As Mr. Spock put it in Star Trek II, the Wrath of Kahn, The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one. Anyway, if you wanted to tell someone what to do, but you weren t a lord, you needed to ask nicely.


That s where please came from. S il vous plait in French; If it pleases you. Please get me a glass of water. I m not saying you have to do it, but if it pleases you to do it, I d appreciate the effort on your part. It s from the Old French plaisir, to please, satisfy, give pleasure to, and from the Latin placere, to be acceptable, be liked, be approved. Saying please is the beginning of another social contract. If you do this for me (if it pleases you to do this for me), I will be in your debt. I ll owe you one. And that s where thanks comes from. There were a whole bunch of Germanic and Middle English words (think Danke in modern German) that meant not only gratitude, but some version of thought or think (The modern German word for think is Denken ). In other words, since it pleased you to do this for me, I will think about and remember what you did. Also, I am much obliged, meaning I have an obligation to you.


I am in debt to you. In Portuguese, the word for thank you is obrigado, literally, I am in your debt. When someone thanks you puts themselves in debt to you it s common in many languages to say some version of don t worry about it. In French, de rien. In Spanish, de nada. In translation, it s nothing. There is no debt. That, too, is part of the social contract. The other thing you may have noticed about please and thank you is that they re pretty much lies. I don t just want that glass of water if it pleases you to get it for me; I want the damn water whether you want to get it or not. And when I thank you for bringing the water, I m not really in your debt; it took very little effort on your part, so I don t owe you much. But the next time I m up and you want me to get you a glass of water, or pass the salt, or hand you the clicker so you can change channels on the TV, well, I ll be happy to do it. It s all part of our implied social contract. You re welcome.

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