Answer Man: Has no problem tackling this question

News-DemocratDecember 7, 2013 

I finished a business transaction with a woman this morning, and I thanked her. She replied, "No problem." In my opinion this phrase is as disgusting as the people who use it. Why not say "You're welcome" when someone says thank you instead of "no problem"? Is this to imply my transaction with her could have resulted in a problem but did not? Could you please tell me when and where this useless phrase started? -- T.L., of Collinsville

No problem. Whoops, let me rephrase that ...

Until I did some research, I had no idea these two words, meant to assure people that a favor or service was no trouble, teed off so many. Back in 2009, for example, Stanley Fish at the New York Times asked readers to send him the phrase that most set their teeth on edge. The hands-down winner was "no problem."

At her website, www.advancedetiquette.com, Syndi Seid has launched a crusade to banish it.

"It's inappropriate, in most instances inaccurate and in some instances rude," she writes before listing five tips to help quash its use.

My answer is going to be a little unscholarly, but I am a contrarian on this one. It's purely personal, but I find "no problem" more sincere and meaningful than the traditional "You're welcome." I apologize if you think me disgusting in this instance, but I find myself using it more.

Have you ever wondered why "You're welcome" came to be an appropriate reply to "Thank you"? When I think of "welcome," I think of welcoming guests into my home with pleasure or giving permission for something ("You're welcome to that last dessert"). If you look in a dictionary, "welcome" in the sense of "you're welcome" is usually the last definition given.

As best I've seen it explained, the person who says "you're welcome" means "the recipient is welcome to whatever was being given freely," but to me that's a terribly stuffy way of phrasing something. Yet it has become the traditional response (the Oxford English Dictionary points to the first written use in 1907). Changing it seems to ruffle the traditions of people like poor Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Not that some haven't tried. "No sweat" (which I do find objectionable) popped up in the 1950s while "not to worry" came from Britain in the '70s.

I just don't see the problem with "no problem." When I thank people, I am usually expressing my gratitude for their going out of their way or at least being extra kind or fast in doing something. When they say "no problem," I think they get right to the point of assuring me that I hadn't caused them any hassle. Sure, they may not mean it, but to answer Seid's criticism, I'm sure people often say "you're welcome" purely out of habit or obligation, too.

Just where "no problem" began is unclear. Some say it may have emerged from the hippie counterculture of the 1960s although it didn't take root until the 1990s. Yet even the Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary in 2010 acknowledged, " 'You're welcome' ... has been falling out of favor in recent years."

So in this case I tend to agree with amazon.com blogger Warren Holzem, who tell objectors to chill: "Those who use it mean well. Who knows? Maybe a future generation will find 'you're welcome' to be hip again. And then all of us who have grown used to 'no problem' will wonder if that means we're being welcomed for causing a problem. LOL."

Yes, I should train myself to say something more formal such as "It was no problem" or "It was my pleasure." (I do draw the line at the pseudoSpanish "no problemo.") Remember, too, a typical French response to "thank you" apparently is simply "de rien" (not at all) while in Spanish people might say "de nada" (it was nothing).

And be glad you don't live in Australia, where "no worries" has become the unofficial national motto.

Today's Trivia

How many children did Georg and Maria Von Trapp have in real life after they married in 1927?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: When Jack Valenti took over the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1966, he wanted a new movie ratings system to replace the thumbs-up-or-down Hays Code of the 1930s, which he said bore "the odious smell of censorship." As a stopgap measure, he instituted the SMA advisory -- suggested for mature audiences. Then, on Nov. 1, 1968, the new MPAA lettering system went into effect. That system has seen changes and additions over the years, but the first movie to earn a PG-13 was "The Flamingo Kid" with Matt Dillon in 1984. However, that film sat on the shelf for five months, so the first film released with a PG-13 was "Red Dawn" on Aug. 10, 1984. The first R-rated film was "The Split" with James Brown and Diahann Carroll (Nov. 4, 1968). The first X-rated film was Brian DePalma's "Greetings" with a young Robert De Niro (Dec. 15, 1968), which was followed by "Henry & June" as the first NC-17 (no child under 17 admitted) rated flick on Oct. 5, 1990.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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