In honor of Thanksgiving, we bring you a buffet of posts and Grammar Girl episodes about Thanksgiving words. First, we have a segment about the origin of giving thanks, then a look at why the cornucopia represents abundance, and finally an analysis of the word “Thanksgiving” itself.
A revolution in politeness: the linguistic history of ‘thank you’
By Valerie Fridland
As we head towards American’s annual Thanksgiving holiday, a day set aside for being thankful, it seems reasonable to wonder how the idea of thanking and its requisite polite form of “thank you,” evolved. It turns out, the type of politeness and gratitude that plays such an important role in modern society didn’t emerge until individualism and free will became prominent parts of our cultural psyche.
The long road to modern “thank you”
“Thanking,” a verb that has been around since Old English, tells us that expressing gratitude has long been part of English society. What has changed more drastically over time, though, is who we thank and why.
In texts from Old English that spanned the 5th to 12th centuries, we find a noun form,“thanc,” and a verb form, “thancian,” that both carried the meaning of giving thanks. In addition, the noun “thanc” could also mean “thought,” since the word came from a root in Proto-European, our ancestral language, that meant “think” or “feel.” Good feelings or thoughts toward someone were interpreted as gratitude, which is how the meaning of thanks seems to have evolved.
However, in its earliest usage, thanking was not routine like it is today. In fact, because early English culture was based on the very strong Germanic values of kinship and obligation, people did as they were expected given their relative rank and position in the family and under their lord or king. In the days where blood feuds settled scores, and disobedience resulted in exile or worse, no one expected anyone to be thanking them for taking out the trash.
Instead, we find “thanc” and “thancian” used much more often in reference to giving thanks to God, rather than to other people. For example, many of the early uses of these words are found in gospels or in other religious references from Old English. As the early Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity in the 7th century, doing one’s duty had become bound up with ideas of God’s will. So God was viewed as the appropriate target of thanking for gifts that were bestowed or people that did you a good turn, like offering you protection or sharing the spoils of war.
From giving thanks to Thanksgiving
Viewing God as the appropriate recipient of thanks when things go well isn’t so far afield from how we got to Thanksgiving celebrations in the New World. A similar motivation to give thanks to God is what drove the early thanks-giving feasts in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was also integral to George Washington’s proclamation of a day for “public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789. Today, this type of God-directed gratitude is echoed in verses like “Thanks be to God,” which we often hear as part of modern religious services.
But how did we go from rare and religious thanks to the modern “thank you” that we throw around so easily today? Well, a somewhat more modern approach to manners and courtesy was introduced into the English court when the French-speaking Normans took over in 1066. During the ensuing period, showing verbal deference and respect to those of high social rank became important. But even with this turn toward politic behavior, expressing gratitude to each other by using the phrase “thank you” didn’t really get going until after about 1400.
A more modern thanks
Both the shortened terms “thanks” and “thank you” are first found in literature from the 14th century, and by the 16th century, we see that thanking directed at individuals becomes much more common. Shakespeare, for example, frequently used phrases such as “Great thanks” and “I thank you.” And, in a study that examined differences in rates of thanking terms from 1560 to 1760, Shakespeare’s era appears to have been the high point of such polite expression.
This same study also found that, in Early Modern English, “thank you” was only used to express genuine appreciation. In contrast, in modern English, it can also be used as a perfunctory way to close an interaction, such as saying “thank you” to a barista as they hand off your latté or when accepting a compliment or proposal, as in “Great job on the report! Yeah, thank you.” It appears that only once thanking expressions became formulaic and ritualistic, which seems to have taken place around the 19th century, did we start using them as ways of ending interactions and signaling acceptance, rather than just expressing gratitude.
But, while thanking was very common in Early Modern English, saying something short and conventional in return like “you’re welcome” was not at all. In the research I just mentioned, only five gratitude responses were found over the entire period. But, as we near the 18th century, we find that extremely long and elaborate forms of responding become par for the course, as were paragraph-long expositions that were very ceremonious expressions of thanks. Like this example from a paper by Taavitsainen and Jucker: “Sir, your goodness hath forced me to a silence that I am not able to render you sufficient thanks for so great a favour.”
As with our abbreviated “thank you,” ritualistic gratitude responders — things like “you’re welcome” or “no problem” — did not become a regular part of our gratitude routine before the 19th century. This is likely because, up through the 18th century, politeness was more focused on ceremony and courteous formality, and directed particularly toward one’s social betters.
In our modern politeness culture, we have shifted toward using polite speech that recognizes and tries to offset the potential for imposing on others in a more democratic way. In earlier periods, obligation was part of one’s lot in life and personal freedom much less valued, so politeness routines in those eras reflected a focus on ego-enhancement and deference (for example, “My kind sir, I am but your humble servant”). As class differences decreased and attention to individual rights and free will increased, we spent less time flattering and more time making sure we didn’t step on each other’s toes.
The increase in expressions like “no worries” or “no problem” over the past century reflect this shift in our attitudes toward politeness — now we’re paying attention to non-imposition instead of deferring to social superiors. Does this mean we have become less polite? Well, not really, it just means our focus has changed from valuing social regard and submission to valuing egalitarianism and individualism. Whether you consider this to be more or less polite is really a question of relativism.
A history of gratitude
In the end, gratitude seems to have been part of English since English began. What has changed is what we most value and to whom we direct our thanks. The lesson being that giving thanks doesn’t have to be the same thing – or involve the same linguistic practice – for everyone.
Though the who and the why might have changed over the centuries, the history of the word “thanks” shows us that gratitude is simply having good thoughts and feelings toward one another, something it seems we could all use a bit more of every day and not just on the holidays.
That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of the forthcoming book, “Like, Literally Dude,” about all the speech habits we love to hate. You can find her at valeriefridland.com or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.
What Does a Cornucopia Symbolize?
By Samantha Enslen
To understand the cornucopia, you have to start with Greek mythology and Zeus.
The cornucopia comes from a story about Zeus and a broken goat horn in the mountains of Crete. It translates literally to “horn of plenty.”
We often decorate for Thanksgiving with a cornucopia: a curved, horn-shaped basket filled with goodies like grapes, apples, and corn. It’s a symbol of fruitfulness and abundance.
But what’s with the word “cornucopia?” And where did its symbolism come from?
To answer those questions, we have to wade into the world of Greek mythology. I hope you’re ready, because this one’s a little strange.
To understand the cornucopia, you have to know Zeus
Let’s start with Zeus. Most of you know who he is: the most powerful of the Greek gods, lives on Mount Olympus, fights with lightning and thunder. Zeus was the son of two titans: Rhea and Kronos. They were the children of Uranus and Gaia. Uranus represented the earth; Gaia, the heavens. Yes, that means that Rhea and Kronos were brother and sister … and husband and wife. That’s just how they did things in Greek mythology.
It gets weirder.
Kronos was told by his parents that he would one day be overthrown by his own child. So, to be safe, when he and Rhea started to have children, he decided to eat them. Totally normal. One by one, he chowed down on Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.
Then, Rhea had Zeus. By this time, she was tired of all her children being eaten alive. So she swaddled up a stone and tricked Kronos into eating it instead of baby Zeus. Good thinking, Rhea!
Zeus was raised by … a goat?
Next, Reah took Zeus and hid him away in a cave, high in the White Mountains of Crete, and she left him in the care of a foster mother, Amalthea. Depending on which version of the myth you follow, Amalthea was either a goat who nursed Zeus, or a nymph who let Zeus feed from her pet goat. Either way, Zeus grew up fat and happy, full of goat’s milk, and warmed by the soft winds of the Mediterranean.
Here’s where we get back to the cornucopia. One day, Amalthea’s goat accidentally broke off one of her horns. Amalthea cleaned it up, filled it with flowers and fruit, and gave it to Zeus. In gratitude, Zeus placed the goat and the horn among the stars, creating the constellation Capricornus.
“Capricorn” comes from two Latin words: “caprum,” meaning “goat,” and “cornu,” meaning horn. Thus Capricornus – or Capricorn, as we say today – means goat-horned.
“Cornucopia” also uses the root “cornu” meaning “horn.” The second part of the word, “copiae,” means “plenty.” Thus “cornucopia” literally means “horn of plenty.”
We see these two roots in other words we know too. There’s “unicorn,” meaning “one horned.” And “copious,” meaning “plentiful and abundant.”
The goat’s horn symbolizes endless abundance
In another version of this myth, it was Zeus who broke the horn off the goat. He gave it to Amalthea and her sisters. And he endowed it with the power to instantly fill with whatever the holder wished for. Thus, this version even more strongly associates the cornucopia with the idea of endless abundance.
Finally, just for the record, there’s an alternate story about the origin of the constellation Capricorn. A different Greek myth tells of the deity Pan trying to escape from the horrible monster Typhon, a beast with a hundred snake heads and poisonous venom. Pan is usually depicted as a man with the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. But apparently, he could also change shape. In trying to escape from Typhon, he leapt through some water. At one point, his front half turned full goat, while his back half turned into a fish tail.
Thus, the constellation Capricorn is often shown as a goat with the tail of a fish.
Greek mythology is full of stories like this, some that agree, some that contradict each other. You could say it’s a veritable cornucopia of tall tales.
That segment was written by Samantha Enslen, an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES’ quarterly journal.
Thanksgiving idioms and the weird origin of the word cornucopia. Get more Thanksgiving word goodness with episode 744, here:
Thanksgiving Is a Gerund
by Neal Whitman
I hope all of you in the United States are planning to have a happy Thanksgiving, or as some like to say, a happy Turkey Day. Or as I like to think of it, a happy Gerund Appreciation Day. What better time to appreciate the English gerund than on a day that has been singled out for giving thanks, and whose name is a gerund—Thanksgiving?
Review: What are gerunds?
A gerund, in case you’re wondering, is a noun formed by taking a verb and adding the suffix “-ing.” The gerund form of “give,” for example, is “giving.”
And if you’re a true grammar lover, you may remember that the “ing” form of a verb can also be a present participle, another funny-sounding name. This is always true, even for the most irregular verb in the language, “be.” The form “being” is both a gerund and a present participle.
The difference between gerunds and present participles
So how can you tell whether you’re dealing with a gerund or a present participle? Well, it’s not always easy. In fact, some linguists even argue that it doesn’t make sense to have different names for these verb forms, and that we should just call the “-ing” form the even longer and funnier name “gerund-participle (1).” For now, we’ll just stick with gerunds, and leave present participles for other episodes—such as the old episode on dangling participles: episode 688 from May 2019.
Now, the gerund may be a noun formed from a verb, but that’s not the end of the story. Even though a gerund is a noun, sometimes it acts more like a noun, and sometimes it acts more like a verb.
Here’s a sentence with a really “nouny” gerund: “The skillful defusing of the bomb saved the day.” The gerund is “defusing,” and it is part of the gerund phrase “the skillful defusing of the bomb.” The gerund is acting particularly nouny in this sentence, on three counts.
- First, the whole gerund phrase begins with the definite article, “the.” Definite articles usually come before nouns.
- Second, “defusing” is modified by an adjective — “skillful” — instead of by an adverb. And adjectives usually modify nouns.
- Third, the object of the “defusing” shows up in a prepositional phrase: “of the bomb.” “Of” is the preposition that heads the phrase, and prepositional phrases that start with “of” usually follow nouns.
Now we’ll rephrase the sentence to have a more “verby” gerund: “Aardvark’s quickly defusing the bomb saved the day.” This time, the gerund phrase begins with a possessive noun, “Aardvark’s,” but that’s actually not what makes it more verby than nouny. In our earlier example of a nouny gerund, instead of “the defusing of the bomb,” we could also have said “Aardvark’s defusing of the bomb.” The real differences start to show up with the word that modifies “defusing”: It’s an adverb, “quickly,” not an adjective. And adverbs usually modify verbs, not nouns. Finally, the object of the defusing, “the bomb,” comes right after the gerund, just like it would after an ordinary verb, not packaged inside a prepositional phrase like the one that started with “of” in our earlier example.
These characteristics of nouny and verby gerunds don’t mix, for the most part. You can’t say “The skillful defusing the bomb,” or “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing of the bomb.” I mean, you could, but it sounds really bad. This is the kind of thing that linguists mean when they call something ungrammatical—it’s not that it sounds slangy or improper; it’s that it just doesn’t work!
Having nouny and verby gerunds allows some subtle shades of meaning to be conveyed. For example, “Aardvark’s skillful defusing of the bomb” suggests that we’re talking about something that actually happened, but “Aardvark’s skillfully defusing the bomb” could be referring to something real or hypothetical.
Want to prove that you know more about language than just Thanksgiving words? Test your parts of speech know-how with the new iPad game Grammar Pop. You don’t have to know the difference between participles and gerunds to play, but if you’re up to the challenge, it’s there waiting for you! Look for Grammar Pop in the App Store.
Gerunds in compound nouns …
You can do even more with gerunds too. You can say, “Aardvark is good at defusing bombs,” or you can put the direct object “bombs” in front of the gerund to make a compound noun: “Aardvark is good at bomb-defusing.” Now, you might be wondering why we say “bomb-defusing” instead of “bombs-defusing.” It’s just the rule for compound nouns in English: the noun that modifies the other noun is usually the singular. But one exception that comes to mind is “Thanksgiving”: We don’t call it “Thank-giving.” (There goes English with its exceptions!)
Direct objects aren’t the only thing you can use to make a compound gerund either. You can use objects of prepositions, too. For example, you could talk about sitting on a fence or “fence-sitting”; dancing in a square or “square-dancing”; breathing through your mouth or “mouth-breathing.”
… Sometimes create compound verbs!
Now here’s what I think is the most interesting thing gerunds can do. These gerund-based compound nouns can create new verbs! Take a compound gerund like “cherry-picking.” It’s composed of two parts: “cherry” and “picking.” But you can also break it into two parts like this: “cherrypick,” plus the suffix “-ing.” And since “-ing” is a suffix for verbs, “cherry-pick” must be a verb, right? Presto! A new verb is born, and we can talk about bad scientists who cherry-pick their data, and insurance companies that cherry-pick the healthiest customers.
Linguists call this kind of process reanalysis. It also happens with agentive verbal nouns such as “bartender” and “babysitter,” and has given us numerous verbs such as “bartend,” “babysit,” “windsurf,” and “Christmas-shop.” The new verbs aren’t always pretty though; one of my least favorites is “problem-solve.”
Not every compound noun with a gerund gets reanalyzed, though. I’d get some pretty strange looks if as my family gathers around the dinner table I say, “Let us thanks-give” instead of “Let us give thanks.”
And I will give thanks for all of you who listen to the show every week and visit Grammar Girl on our website.
That segment was written by Neal Whitman, an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.
Dent, Susie. Amalthea. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. Amalthea, in Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Amalthea, cornucopia, Capricornus, Rhea, Zeus (subscription required, accessed November 14, 2019).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. cornucopia, Capricorn (subscription required, accessed November 14, 2019).
Persson Nilsson, Martin. The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, pp. 537–539. Biblo and Tannen, 1968.
Smith, William. Amalthea, in A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography Mythology, Harper & Brothers, 1878.