A correspondent writes to ask about the modern usage of you're welcome as a politeness formula used in response to an expression of thanks. Is it an Americanism?
Certainly the usage is very frequent today, in some parts of the world. It seems to have become the expression of choice in service environments (such as responding to customers in a restaurant), and it has been seized (I suspect with some relief) as an easy response by service personnel who have English as a second language. It isn't the only option: expressions such as no worries (eg in Australia) and no problem are also heard. But it isn't modern, in the sense of 'recent', nor is it especially American. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1907, but it didn't take me long to find an earlier instance. Here's a British example from the mid-1850s - Dickens' Little Dorrit, Chapter 2:
'I thank you,' said the other, 'very heartily for your confidence.'
'Don't mention it,' returned Mr Meagles, 'I am sure you are quite
Where does the usage come from? It's a natural development of the earlier greeting when someone says 'You are welcome' to a visitor. This has been in English for hundreds of years. Here's an example from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (4.2.72):
Pedant: God save you, sir.
Tranio: And you sir. You are welcome.
It's a very short step from here to the usage in question.
When did the change take place? Difficult to say. There would have been a transitional period in which people would have reacted uncertainly to the usage. I've been looking for examples, and think I may have found one. What do you make of this, from Thackeray's The Wolves and the Lamb, Act 1, written at the same time as Little Dorrit?
MRS. PRIOR. Oh, how thoughtful it was of your ladyship to ask me to stay to tea!
LADY K. With your daughter and the children? Indeed, my good Mrs. Prior, you are very welcome!
MRS. PRIOR. Ah! but isn't it a cause of thankfulness to be MADE welcome?
Is Lady K's response to Mrs Prior a politness formula, or a literal welcoming? My feeling is that it is the former, and this prompts Mrs Prior to focus on the latter.
There's nothing unusual about that kind of reaction. We hear it still, when people encounter a usage change and draw attention to it by focusing on the earlier meaning. Here's an example I heard the other day at an airport, where B was saying goodbye to A, who was about to take a plane:
A: See you later.
B: Not unless the plane has a puncture.
A was using the phrase, very common among young people today, to mean 'see you the next time I see you'. But for older people, it has to mean 'later the same day' - hence the comment.
So, my feeling is that you're welcome as a politeness response was arriving in the mid-19th century. If anyone comes across an earlier example, do share it.