Wednesday 18 November 2009

On being welcome

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.


Barrie England said...

On a slightly different note, is there any difference in meaning, do you think, between ‘Comments welcome’ and ‘Comments welcomed’?

sbfren said...

Are you looking only in English? I'm thinking specifically of the Irish Gaelic "Tá fáilte romhat." I haven't a clue, however, about how long that's been in use...

Chris Harvey said...

I wonder if the Welsh ‘Croeso’ was borrowed as a calque from English or perhaps it was the other way around. Irish also uses ‘welcome’ in this context: ‘Fáilte romhat’.

Chaa006 said...

I find it interesting that you addduce <Au.E> "no worries" and <Am.E/Br.E> "no problem" as possible alternatives to "you're welcome". For me (a native speaker of <Br.E> in his early sixties), "you're welcome" is sufficiently formal to be used with any collocutor, whilst I would feel comfortable using "no problem" in only very informal situations. I would probably not use "no worries" at all unless conversing with an Australian whom I knew quite well (and with whom I would feel comfortable using the greeting "G'day !" rather than "Good morning !").

DC said...

I share those intuitions about formality. What prompted me to use those examples was hearing, in three restaurants in quick succession, a waiter saying 'you're welcome', another saying 'no problem', and a third saying 'no worries'. So at least in one environment the formality contrast was reduced.

DC said...

On Barrie's point: this is the active/passive distinction, so the 'welcomed' usage will convey the associations of greater impersonality and so on that come with that construction. Welcomed by who? Wre're not saying. So a distance creeps in which 'welcome' avoids.

Ed W said...

Lawrence Stern uses the expression almost a century before Dickens in the sense of 'don't mention it'.

It crops up a couple of times in Tristram Shandy, for example in Chapter 1.xxxvii:

'He rose up hastily from his chair, and seizing hold of both my uncle Toby's hands as he spoke:—Brother Toby, said he:—I beg thy pardon;—forgive, I pray thee, this rash humour which my mother gave me.—My dear, dear brother, answered my uncle Toby, rising up by my father's help, say no more about it;—you are heartily welcome, had it been ten times as much, brother.'

It's not exactly the modern usage of a response to 'thank you' but it seems pretty close to it.

Ed W said...

After making that last post and re-reading the chapter it's occured to me that 'welcome' could be taken literally in that example, as Tristram's father is a guest in his uncle Toby's house at the time. From the context that still doesn't seem quite right, but maybe it's just my modern brain making me read it in a modern way.

Here's another example from the same book, though, where it certainly seems to be used in a non-literal way, somewhat akin to the modern usage. Uncle Toby's live-in servant Trim offers his employer his advice:

'If I durst presume, continued Trim, to give your Honour my advice, and
speak my opinion in this matter.--Thou art welcome, Trim, quoth my uncle

Unknown said...

Thank, David Crystal; this blog post was very interesting indeed.

Barrie England said...

OED’s definition B2a under ‘welcome’ as an adjective has ‘of a thing: acceptable, agreeable, pleasing’ which is not how I read ‘comments welcome’. Definition B3a has ‘freely permitted or allowed, cordially invited, (to do or to have something)’, but the citations apply only to people and not to things. Could it then not be that ‘comments welcome’ is not an active verb form (comments, after all, cannot themselves do any welcoming), but simply a shortened form of the passive ‘comments welcomed’ (by, presumably, the giver of the invitation)?

Anonymous said...

I find it rather shocking that anyone would suspect "you're welcome" of being an Americanism. I would have considered it to be THE standard, unmarked response to a "thank you" in both Australia and Britain, the phrase that children are formally taught to use. I would not have been confident about whether Americans use it at all.

I am Australian myself, but lived in Britain during the years when children are first taught about politeness rituals.

DC said...

When I said 'active/passive' I was referring to the clause as a whole, which I interpret as an elliptical form of Comments are welcome, in which welcome is an adjective, and Comments are welcomed, in which welcomed is a verb.

Phillip Minden said...

Then there's "sure" on the lower end of the formality scale.

How about "pleasure"? Is that less common or perceived to be more formal over in America? ("My pleasure "is certainly more formal, but that's true for the full "You are heartily welcome".)

Bob Mudford said...

I've noticed that whenever things change hand in the UK the recipient tends to say "Thank you" - and that each thank you may be followed by an acknowledging "Thank you". For instance in a shop you hand something to the sales assistant they say "Thank you", and you say "Thank you" in return. The same procedure is followed when making payment receiving change and finally the purchased object in a bag.

At least if I remember correctly - I've not lived in the UK for some years.

I do remember confusing service assistants with my constant use of "Thank you" in the US which produced a string of "Your welcome" responses which didn't quite fit.

Finally I remember saying "Thank you very much" in the US which produced a surprised look and the somewhat ironic response "You're welcome very much."

Anonymous said...

I am a 17 year-old New Zealander, and we often use "it's all good" instead of your welcome. However this may just be my age group.

Anonymous said...

Every moron knows "you're" is a concatenation of "you are."

Yet when someone responds to my "thank you" with "you're" or "you are" welcome, I always wonder where I am welcome to? Their home?

Is it not possible that "your welcome" - your feeling of being appreciated - is on my mind rather than welcoming you to my home? Is it therefore, not possible that the proper usage might be "your welcome?"

DC said...

I think everyone intuitively recognizes this as 'You are welcome', so there is no homophony with 'your'.

Piotr said...

There are definitely some other options, but most of them seem very, very informal. When I was in the US I heard people responding "Y'shouldn't thank" and "You betcha" to my "thank you".