Have you ever coined a phase? Put two or three or four words together in a way that was not only ingenious but original and even memorable? And have you then followed your never-before-heard sentiment with the smirky aside “to coin a phrase”? (Which should not be likened to parroting someone else’s earlier coinage and following that with the words “to coin a phrase.” In this second case, coining a phrase is exactly the opposite of what you’ve done.)
I have coined a phrase. It’s true! And more than once.
Unfortunately, in each instance attribution remains a matter of debate. I’m pretty bummed, too, because one of them has turned up as a sub-entry in the latest digital supplement to the OED, where once, long ago, I held a summer job. But that, as they say, was then. Furthermore, even if then — and that — were now, what’s the big whoop in claiming provenance of a group of words, or some clever compound noun, that others simply re-use later as a stock expression, as a cliché?
Which I sincerely felt. At least I think so; we’re always at some remove from our deeper or darker motives. Un-ironic sincerity — not just for me but for all of us — is rare enough. To declaim a contrived phrase like thank you with real and, importantly, really convincing self-belief is nearly impossible. (Was it not Camus who asserted that we exchange trite salutations with passersby in order to avoid stabbing each other?) Still, you try. You look into his, her, their eyes. You exert your will not to blink, not to twitch, not to betray some inner slow-burning malice by failing to squinch the obiculares oculi. You add an intensifier. Maybe you beef up your platitude with an unmistakably personal touch: Thank you — that was really wonderful, superb, a cracking meal!
“Thank you,” I said, “that was really wonderful, superb, a cracking meal!” Only to find myself instantly confuted.
“No — thank YOU,” she parried, bright-eyed with push-back.
This, then, is a perfect example of what I’d like to call an “upthank.” It’s more or less a direct echo the initial thank-you, frequently — though not always — presenting exactly the same phonemes in exactly the same order. What’s mainly different is its strongly rising cadence. Often, too, it is preceded by an outright negation (as in my waiter’s “No”), so that the whole trisyllabic arrangement assumes a buoyant, anapestic lilt: tra-la-LA.
As I make it out, the upthank occurs when your gratitude is not accepted on its own terms as a straightforward acknowledgement of some act of kindness or diligent service. Instead it is received as if you were insufficiently aware of that person’s pitiable status relative to yours. The reply, therefore, can be either imploring or sarcastic. I realize, of course, that my waiter mayn’t have meant anything shirty or untoward. Indeed she mayn’t have meant anything at all. This is the thing about rote sentiments: they are always without meaning except in that most stripped-down Wittgensteinian sense — what young Ludwig himself would have called “the use.” Clearly there was no suggestion that her upthank was intended as shorthand for something like, “Mister, don’t be a jackass; this was a service for which you paid, even over-paid; not only are you absolved of all debt, we’re lucky you ate here at all, and therefore the gratitude is entirely ours.” On the contrary, she was merely doing what we all do to fit in; she had picked up from her surrounding social environment a convenient buzz-phrase, an accepted convention, and used it in a way that reinforces homogeneity of peer culture.
Not that upthanking is a particularly new convention. I can remember being entranced by this particular reciprocation as a small boy, overhearing our neighbor Mrs Wylie upthank my mom who had herself, milliseconds before, upthanked Mrs Wylie for some minor favor. So this is how adults do it! At the time I was already keenly aware that children were taught to do things, especially if these things pertained to comportment and manners, in ways that were conspicuously different from how grown-ups themselves acted. We tots, when thanked, were expected to reply “You’re welcome,” while for parents the analogous locution, at least between and among themselves, seemed to be “No — thank YOU!”
I seized on the absolute certainty of my observation one day while hanging out with my neighbor, Big Lisa, who was playing with her Barbie Dolls. Like rigid chess queens Barbie and her cousin Skipper were being trotted to and fro amid the salacious vinyl decor of their Malibu bungalow, upthanking each other in ear-splitting crescendos of mutual adoration. Even at the age of five I could sense that gratitude operated like a pair of opposed mirrors, the pure blaze of narcissism refracting back and forth in an infinite diminution. On occasions when Ken, attired in a white dinner jacket and bearing a corsage, was invited to fetch Barbie for a special date at their favorite supper club, I was generally the one recruited as a third hand — literally — for the purpose of gliding him smoothly to their front door. (Ken, suave and elegant, never bounced.) At the end of the evening, just before slipping back into his dune buggy, Ken was expected to execute intricate displays of chivalrous restraint. “Well, Barbie, thank you once again for a terrific night on the town!” To which Barbie’s response was, inevitably, “No — thank YOU!”
The topic of gratitude itself offers a possible hint as to why its acknowledgment should be either on the one hand insincere or on the other disparaging. Without appealing to discussions of the concept in, say, Kierkegaard, Jonathan Edwards, and St Augustine, I would wish to acknowledge philosophical and scholarly debate concerned with the whole idea of thanking and being thanked. Gift-giving is sometimes the starting point for such inquiry. Many cultures outwardly recognize the instrumental value of generosity, as a form of balance-shifting that places the recipient in debt and therefore in a state of dynamic weakness. At the same time, such cultures accept that expressions of reciprocal gratitude are nothing more than calculated redress. The parlous debt canceled, harmonious equilibrium is thereby restored.
Several sects of our leading religions advocate gratitude — fealty to the applicable deity or trifurcation thereof — as a core tenet of worship. Often the reason is fairly cynically stated: give thanks, get something in return (that is, favored status, reduced penance, even surprising amounts of gold). This bartering model of gratitude can be observed among permutations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam alike. What’s rare is the idea that thanks might be offered just because it feels good to everyone involved. But I suppose even this seeming altruism is mired in its own tautology: for isn’t feeling good (about being gracious) a reward for that behavior?
Prompting further rumination: is it conceivable that the Intelligent Designer Himself, thanked continually — not to say ad infinitum, or even sub specie aeternitatis — in liturgy and prayer, wouldn’t know the drill? I for one find it difficult not to picture Him on high, bellowing down through layers of cumuli to His obeisant minions or Victor Mature, “No — upthank YOU.“