Tuesday, July 6, 2010

No Problem? You're Welcome.

Over at Salon, Matt Zoeller Seitz posted a fairly mundane rant in the peevologist tradition complaining about the decline in civility represented by the rise of no problem as a replacement for you're welcome in American courtesy interactions. What piqued my interest was not the rant itself (I'm growing tired of countering the peevologists, let them rant away, yawn) but rather the fact that we can easily fact-check his intuition that you're welcome is declining in use while no problem is rising thanks to the newly released Corpus of Historical American English from Mark Davies at BYU. As a caution, this corpus is not really suited to this question because it's not limited to spoken courtesy phrases*, which is what Seitz was specifically ranting about; nonetheless, it give us a hint at the change in frequency of these two phrases.

Using the freely available online tool, I plotted the frequency of you're welcome over the last 200 years:

Then I plotted the frequency of no problem over the last 200 years:

There's no doubt that no problem has increased in frequency, but its rise started 50+ years ago and it has dwarfed you're welcome since the 1970s.

Just for kicks, I performed searches on Google and Bing. Here are the results:
Google/Bing seem to confirm COHA in that no problem is more frequent than you're welcome.

However, these data are hard to tease apart because no problem can be used in a wider variety of contexts than you're welcome, so it's to be expected that its frequency is greater. But the dramatic and sudden rise of the phrase in ALL contexts 50 years ago is the truly interesting fact, imho. I have no explanation for that. One of Seitz' friends suggested that the influence of Romance language speakers (e.g., Spanish speakers in North America) has led to the semantic/conceptual borrowing of de nada. A nice thought, but it would take much more research to confirm/deny such a thing.

This does give some credence to half of Seitz' claim (if not his complaint) as yes, indeed, the frequency of no problem has increased. However, there's no indication that the frequency of you're welcome has declined; quite the contrary. Its frequency has held solidly over 1.5/mil since the 1960s and hit its all time high just last decade. According to his IMDB profile, Seitz was born in 1968, which means his entire life has been lived well within the boundary of the roaring no problem period. Exactly when did he experience the golden era of you're welcome? And how can it be said that no problem is REPLACING you're welcome if you're welcome is as strong as ever?

This is probably an example of the yester year phenomenon whereby history is rewritten because a person assumes the days of his youth were the greatest days on Earth; therefore they must conform to his current beliefs about what the greatest days must be like; therefore the past was different than it really was.

*FYI, the sources for COHA are Fiction, Magazine, Newspaper, and Non-Fiction Books.


Jason M. Adams said...

Consider this an intervention. You have to stop reading Salon.com. :)

I wonder if it represents a sociological change where we somehow shifted from a sense of duty to help our neighbors to a more self-reliant, nobody owes us anything. Now, it feels like we almost have to apologize for being helped. Or is that my own neurosis?

Chris said...

haha, yes, too true. the only reason I check Salon and Slate any more is just to find their crazy shit to blog about. For that, they're both still quite good. Anything else, nada.

The shift you mention is possible, but it's a hell of a cultural shift. I'd expect to see that manifested in a lot of areas, not just courtesy phrases.

Howard said...

I still don't buy it.