So there’s a news article about language and the journalist interviewed… linguists! Actual, real life linguists! I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Does this mean the field of linguists has finally made it? May Helena Plumb put it perfectly:
I’m joking around, but the article, which appears in the Huffington Post, is really good. It’s about the decline of the phrase you’re welcome and the article does a great job in explaining the ins and outs of phatic expressions and the social uses and meanings of the things we say.
But is you’re welcome really on the decline? Are no worries and no problem really on the increase? There weren’t any figures in the article to back this up, so I thought I’d have a look. The first thing to notice is the claim that you’re welcome as a response to thank you is relatively new. Linguists call this form of you’re welcome a minimizer. According to the Huffington Post article, which is citing other sources, the term first appears in writing in 1907 (cited in the OED). Of course, the phrase you’re welcome as in you’re welcome to come over anytime is older than that, but why doesn’t the minimizer you’re welcome (as a response to thank you) date back any further than that? It seems like such a natural part of our language, doesn’t it?
I was able to find two hits in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA) that might predate the OED’s 1907 citation. I say might because I’m not a lexicographer, so take these with a grain of salt. We all know what happened last time I tried to predate a dictionary entry. (The citations here don’t predate the OED by much anyway).
The first one is from 1862, in a play called Davy Crockett written by Frank Murdoch (redo my COHA search here). Apparently the play was first shown in 1872. You can see the keyword in context result from COHA by following the link. I was able to find the script in a book called Davy Crockett & Other Plays (ed. by Goldberg and Hefner). That book is from 1940. Here are the lines in question:
This one looks an awful lot like the minimizer you’re welcome. It’s even said in response to thank you very much.
Then there’s this hit for “you are welcome” from 1848 in a book called Anecdotes for Boys by Harvey Newcomb. (Redo the search here) The book is online at the Internet Archive here (just flip to page 98). A screenshot of the page in question is below. This one also looks like the minimizer you’re welcome.
Lynne Murphy, a professor and linguist at the University of Sussex, has a theory that replying to thank you with you’re welcome might come from Irish English. In her post on the topic, she also has this insightful paragraph:
Reading around a bit on the topic now, I’m interested to see that several researchers (all cited in Schneider 2005) have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a ‘minimizer’ like no problem, my pleasure, or you’re welcome. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Britain thank you/thanks is often used for purposes other than thanking, or maybe it doesn’t. (It depends on how the research was done–and I don’t have access to all of it at the moment.)
Maybe the minimizer you’re welcome isn’t so natural. Murphy might be on to something with the Irish connection though. After all, the playwright cited above has the Irish-sounding name Murdoch. He was born in Massachusetts, though, and it seems the name Murdoch ultimately comes from Scotland (according to my crack search engine research), but maybe the Murdochs in question picked up the minimizer thank you on their way through Ireland?
Figures of minimizer you’re welcome
Now let’s try to see if minimizer you’re welcome is really on the decline. This one is tricky to research because the form which is used in constructions like you’re welcome to VERB will muddy the results. But let’s see what we can do.
On first glance, you’re welcome doesn’t seem to be declining. Most of the hits for you’re welcome in the 1800s were for the you’re welcome to VERB kind, not the minimizer kind. Of the decades in the latter half of the 20th century, I did a rough check for minimizers and came up with the following stats:
|Minimizer thank you / total (%)
|Freq. per million words
Remember that these are very rough numbers. I didn’t have time to check all of the expanded displays and I tried to exclude any insincere minimizers of you’re welcome (where it seems like you’re welcome was said sarcastically). But it looks to me like minimizer you’re welcome is not in decline.
The COHA data should be taken with another grain of salt because it’s written English rather than spoken English. Maybe people really are saying you’re welcome less often these days. If we look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), it seems that the phrase is slightly on the decline, but the frequencies for the 2010s are still higher than the early 1990s. A cursory glance at the concordances shows that most of the hits are for the minimizer you’re welcome and not the you’re welcome to VERB. Things were the opposite in the COHA texts. If I ever get the time, I’ll go through the 2,000+ hits. (Redo my search here)
The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA is taken from television news and news opinion shows, so it’s not a perfect representation of spontaneous spoken language. It’s sometimes scripted and most of the time formal. But that second fact is maybe a positive – I would expect to see the (sincere) minimizer you’re welcome show up in more formal registers. For a more accurate look at spoken data, we can head across the Atlantic and check out the British National Corpus (BNC). In the BNC’s SPOKEN section, 21 of the 41 hits are for minimizer you’re welcome. That’s fewer overall hits than I expected, but more hits for minimizer you’re welcome than I expected. Its frequency per million words is 2.1.
The spoken data from the BNC was recorded between 1991 and 1994. For a more modern look at things, we can check out the BNC 2014, which has spoken data recorded between 2012-2016. In the BNC 2014, there are 111 hits for you’re welcome in 85 different texts, of which 57 hits come after the words thank you. I didn’t have time to read through all of the expanded contexts, so I’m not sure of the situations in which these were used. But the results mean that just over half of them look like minimizers. Of the 57 you’re welcome minimizers in the BNC 2014, 15 were recorded in 2012, 9 in 2014, 19 in 2015, and 14 in 2016. The frequency per million words for the hits overall is 4.99. That’s higher than the BNC data from the 1990s.
In comparing the rate of minimizer you’re welcome, it would be good to look at a few of the phrases which the HuffPost article claims are replacing it. The minimizer no problem is tricky to search for because it can also be used in phrases such as “I have no problem with X”. There are 1,788 hits for this phrase in the SPOKEN section of COCA and I just don’t have time to go through them for this blog post. Instead, let’s look at no worries. There are only 59 hits for this phrase in COCA’s SPOKEN section and from my rough review, only four of these are minimizers in response to a thank you – three from 2017 and one from 2014. That’s not a lot. I’d be hesitant to say that this phrase is replacing you’re welcome. But again, COCA doesn’t capture casual and spontaneous speech as well as we would like it to. So these numbers are far from definitive. The other minimizers, such as okay, sure and anytime, would be even harder to search for because of how many other roles and meanings they can have besides being minimizers. And I don’t have the time to go through them for this post.
So where does that leave us? First, I’m not sure we can say that the minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. But people clearly think it is. They may be right that people are saying minimizer you’re welcome less these days, but I would worry that that’s a case of recency illusion. I’d say it’s possible that the other minimizers (no worries, no problem, etc.) are on the rise and making it seem like minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. It’s possible that minimizers in general are on the rise. Or, as the HuffPost points out, the minimizer chosen is becoming more dependent on context and situation:
When you’re in a more formal setting, it makes sense to say “you’re welcome” rather than something like “No worries.” In more informal situations, like a text message conversation, the reverse is true. […] So it seems the politeness formula may simply be shifting in many situations, from “thank you” → “you’re welcome” to “thank you” → “no worries”/”no problem”/”sure thing”/etc.
As always, you’re welcome to comment on this post. But please don’t say “thank you”. I can’t take the pressure of choosing which minimizer to respond with.
Just kidding, we all know that English should have only one minimizer: fuhgeddaboudit.