This week, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving, a tradition rooted in the idea of expressing gratitude for those around them and the blessings they have been given, but what exactly does being “thankful” mean? Of all of our words, “thanks” gets thrown around a lot. In this blog we ask and try to answer: “What is the meaning of ‘thanks’ and where does it come from?”
Thanks, I Guess?
Like many words in language, this habit of expressing thanks is the expression of an emotion: gratitude. Though, you might not think of gratitude as being an emotion, it is what is classified as a “complex” emotion. Complex emotions are classified as any emotion that is comprised of similar feelings but can differ between people, situations, and cultures, as opposed to basic emotions that are more universal and simple.
To illustrate this difference, here are the etymological routes of some ways of saying thank you from a number of languages:
ありがとう(Arigato)- Japanese: Recognize difficulty/rarity
Gracias- Spanish: Praise
Danke- German: To thank, offer gratitude
Merci- French: Pay, wages, reward, rent, bribe
Obrigado- Portuguese: Bind in obligation
شكرا (Shukran)-Arabic: Thankfulness
It Means a Lot
As you might be able to tell, these root meanings vary across cultures. Though they all mean “thank you” in their respective languages, their root meanings have different nuances that describe the emotion or in some way try to come to terms with what the feeling of gratitude really means. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and other theories surrounding linguistic relativity would suggest that each of these languages’ method of expressing gratitude had been an expression of the phrase their parent cultures felt was the closest to their emotional state. Latin, the base for many European languages, expressed gratitude, with “gratis tibi ago.” Translating to “to you I give thanks” but an alternative to the vague idea of thanks, “gratis” the root for both gracias (Spanish) and grazie (Italian) also means esteem. This implies that to thank someone, is to hold the person in higher esteem for their actions.
Upon closer inspection, it may appear that our examples all tend to be expressing the speaker’s relation to the person they are thanking. If thankfulness is to esteem the giver, what about the ones that don’t translate purely into gratitude. Let’s start with “obrigado”, when someone gives you something, especially a more generous the gift, the more we feel obligated to do something nice in return. When someone surprises you with a gift, in English you may say, “You didn’t have to do that,” or “Now I should do something nice for you.”
The idea of repayment is also found within the list with the French “merci”. Merci comes from the Latin word, “mercēs”, meaning reward or payment. It might be interpreted as, by thanking someone the expression of gratitude is their reward, or alternatively, it is an act worthy of reward. In Japanese, arigatou comes from arigatai, which comes from “to exist” and “difficult”, implying the act the person has done was difficult but was made possible, not only acknowledging the act as a worthy reward, but further esteeming the person for making it possible.
As America settles into it’s holiday, keep these meanings in mind as you express and explore your own personal feelings about “thankfulness. Maybe this linguistic insight will help you express yourself. At the office, these different terms of “thanks” help us connect with our clients, translators, and colleagues across the cultural spectrum.
If you’re around the Tone office or our home City of Utica, NY , you may hear any of these expressions of “Thank you” being said:
Bosnian: hvala ti
Burmese:(kyae zu tin par tay)
Russian: спасиба (spasiba)
Vietnamese: cảm ơn bạn
Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading.