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'Cheers' for Americans

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  April 2, 2007 11:07 PM

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Over at Separated by a Common Language, Lynne Murphy looks at (among other social niceties) the salutation cheers as used by Americans and Britons:

Cheers is interesting because it is so flexible. In AmE, it is simply used as a salutation in drinking (or sometimes with a mimed glass in hand, as a means of congratulations). In BrE it has this use, but is also used to mean 'thank you', 'goodbye' or 'thanks and goodbye'.

"I find it very useful for those situations in which one wants to close an e-mail with thank you for something that hasn't been done yet," Murphy adds.

Americans, too, have noticed the usefulness of cheers. It has been gaining ground fast as an e-mail signoff here -- I've used it myself occasionally, since (the record reveals) fall 2005. And a count of total uses of cheers in my saved e-mail -- incoming and outgoing -- shows a dramatic rise:

2002: 17
2003: 37
2004: 32
2005: 81
2006: 217

Some of these instances, of course, must be repetitions of the greeting as a discussion goes back and forth, but still, the recent surge is striking. And though cheers may be a British import, nearly all the correspondents in my collection were Americans.

Before cheers was a drinking salute, says the OED, it was merely a cheerful greeting, like the slightly earlier cheerio (1910, as cheero), which also evolved into a hello/goodbye greeting.

That made me wonder if cheers had been helped along, in its transition to America, by its resemblance to ciao, another cheerful hello/goodbye (but one that declined from wordly to cheesy -- in non-Italian usage -- some decades ago).

I don't have an answer, but I do have this fascinating etymological note: Ciao, according to the OED, is a dialect version of schiavo, Italian for slave. Hence ciao means "I am your slave." And you thought "your humble servant" was as sycophantic as a signoff could get.

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