Ben Zimmer: Where Did the Word “Thanks” Come From?

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “An Expression for a Thought of Gratitude”:

Leave it to the sagacious Linus Van Pelt to strip away the trappings of the Thanksgiving holiday tradition and find its essence. In the classic 1973 TV special “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” Linus explains, “Thanksgiving is a very important holiday. Ours was the first country in the world to make a national holiday to give thanks.”

Linus may have overstated the case a little, but he does raise the question: What is the nature of the “thanks” we give? We can follow ancestors of that word of gratitude back to the earliest known roots of our linguistic history.

Etymologists trace “thanks” back to Proto-Indo-European, the language spoken roughly six or seven thousand years ago that is the common ancestor for all the languages in the Indo-European family. One word reconstructed in that proto-language is “tong,” meaning “feel” or “think,” and on different paths along the Germanic branch of the family tree, it gave rise to the English words “think” and “thank.”

In Old English, the noun “thanc” could refer to thoughts in general, or more specifically to the kind of good thoughts that conjure feelings of gratitude and fondness. The noun went along with a verb, “thancian,” for expressing this grateful feeling.

The noun form only survived in modern English in the plural form as “thanks.” By the 16th century, polite phrases like “I give you my thanks” or “my thanks to you” could be trimmed down to the single word “thanks” as a shorter way of saying “thank you.” (A similar shortening happened in German, where “ich danke dir” meaning “I thank you” got pared down to “danke.” Likewise, Spanish “gracias” and Italian “grazie” go back to the longer Latin expression “gratias ago,” meaning “I give thanks.”)

William Shakespeare had his characters use “thanks” in the modern, concise way in his 1598 play “Love Labour’s Lost.” When the country bumpkin Costard is play-acting as the Roman general Pompey, he instructs the Princess to say “Thanks, Pompey,” and she responds with “Great thanks, great Pompey.”

Elsewhere, in “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare has Petruchio say, “Will you give thanks, sweet Kate, or else shall I?” “Giving thanks” in that context implied saying grace before a meal, and that is also how the earliest examples of the compound form “thanksgiving” were used. In the American colonies, most famously at Plymouth, “thanksgiving” expanded from a ritual statement of gratitude to God for a meal, evolving into public feasts and festivals that were the precursors to our daylong Thanksgiving celebrations.

As for “thanks” on its own, the 20th century brought such emphatic variations as “thanks a lot” and “thanks a million.” Those expressions of thanks could be ironic, of course, indicating that the speaker doesn’t have anything to be grateful for—in other words, “thanks for nothing.”…

In 1936, H.L. Mencken noted in “The American Language” that “thanx” was among a class of respelled words (like “lite” and “foto”) that “still lack the imprimatur of any academic authority” but “are used freely by the advertising writers.”

These days, “thanks” can be telescoped even further in texting and social media posts, appearing as “thx,” “tx,” or alphanumerically as “10x.” But let’s not rush to call the holiday Thxgiving, and give the fully spelled-out Thanksgiving its due.

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