Sunday, May 13, 2007

Jaded on Safire

Barry Popik has an unapologetic agenda against William Safire. It's only partly personal. It's mostly decent scholarship. On the ADS-L he has identified the amateur linguist's most recent lapse.

Safire in his "On Language" column for The New York Times Magazine this week makes the following observation:

The warm old phrase you’re welcome is rapidly disappearing from the language of civility. Though the word welcome first appeared in “Beowulf,” the O.E.D. notes that the whole phrase surfaced in print in 1907. We have now come to the 100th anniversary of the birth of our acknowledgment of someone’s expression of gratitude.
I was driven to send the following message to him. He'll ignore it I'm sure.
...Beowulf may be the first documentation of the word. To argue otherwise would take more time and effort than a simple missive should require.

But I must take issue with your claim that 1907 was the earliest that the entire phrase "you're welcome" was cited. The OED does cite the line "You're quite welcome" in W W Jacobs work, Short Cruises. And that phrase does include the entire lexical bank of "you're welcome" though the extra quite interrupts the continuity of the phrase. No matter. We will accept this as an example of the entire phrase plus one word. This does however move us to acknowledge those citations (in the same OED entry) that predate the 1907 example. 300 years before Jacobs, Shakespeare wrote "O Apermantus, you are welcome" in Timon of Athens. About 600 years before that Caedmon's Satan contained the line you "sind wilcuman" which is perhaps too early to be easily recognizable. But clearly the phrase was around well before 1907.

I do understand that you then intend to identify the phrase as a salient (if waning) response to that most common expression of gratitude: "thank you." In that case a quick look at only the OED supports your claim. But you should not be so hasty to trust even such a lofty tome to be your only source. It is not a regularly updated work. You need not lower your sights to find an example that predates the OED's 1907 citation. Look to the Bard good sir. In Othello you will find the following exchange between Lodovico and Desdemona:

Lod. Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship.
Des. Your honour is most welcome.

Use this information as you wish.
I'll let Mr Popik's comments sum up the judgment.
So what Safire is really saying here is that this is not the "100th anniversary of 'you're welcome,'" but that this is a poor researcher relaying obviously outdated information to an uninformed general public. This is a joke.
Doesn't The New York Times have any journalistic standards?

Mr. Verb is also fed up. Read some of his thoughts on Safire over at his space.


  1. Maybe the final question is rhetorical, but it still begs the answer that while The NY Times may have some journalistic standards, at least their reputation has been tossed by the wayside in the aftermath of Mr. Williams' indiscretions.

    If it is true that the Times has no standards for journalism, is it more important to bring that fact to the public or to correct their journalistic missteps? Or is that like trying to judge the actions of an amoral being?

  2. I love that you call Safire "Good sir."

    Plus, there were other acknowledgements meant to recognize someone else's gratitude, weren't there? I swear I've read this dialogue somewhere in 19th century literature:

    "Thank you."
    "Of course!"


    "Thank you!"
    "Not at all."

    Or whatever. Isn't it beside the point which words we use to fill that structural space? From now on, when you say "thank you" to me, I am going to return, "inevitably!"


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