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THE WORD

Don't mention it

WITH ALL THE rough language available for our listening pleasure, it's curious how often people find offense in the least likely phrases, those ritual exchanges whose literal sense is almost beside the point.

Earlier this month -- coincidentally, on the same day that Don Imus was making that terminally bad joke -- I got an e-mail from Hank Cadra of Walpole about the language that's been bothering him: The "annoying" new substitution of "Can I get a coffee?" for "May I have a coffee?"

He's not hung up on may vs. can, Cadra insists, but something about the new phrasing seems careless, unsophisticated. And surely there's a reason we were taught that "may I have" was correct?

His query reminded me of an earlier e-mail from Bob Larkin of Beverly, puzzling over "It was the least I could do." Does this response to a thank-you mean "'If I could have done less, I would have'?" he asked. "Is it me or does this phrase make no sense?"

Other variations on "you're welcome" have also drawn cavils. A few years ago, in a Globe Magazine essay, John Powers looked askance at the latest of these innovations, the minimalist Mm-hmm. "I thank the flight attendant when she hands me a mummified bagel at 32,000 feet," he wrote. Her response? "'Mm-hmm.'"

"I've never been mm-hmmed in other countries," he continued. "When I say merci, the French say de rien (i.e., it's nothing). . . . When I say gracias, the Mexicans say de nada (it's nothing). Not at all, the English tell me."

But even "It's nothing," "Don't mention it," and, especially, "No problem" -- though it exactly translates several of the responses Powers mentions -- confuse and annoy some people. How is it that the phrases meant to smooth social interaction can cause such mental friction?

Linguist Lynne Murphy, who blogs about British-American language differences at Separated By a Common Language, offered some theories in a post last year about an English friend who, like Hank Cadra, objected to "Can I get a coffee?"

"If you ask to get a coffee, by his reasoning, you're asking to come (a)round to the other side of the counter and fix yourself a coffee," said Murphy. But that can't really be the issue, she noted, since Britons use get for "receive" in other contexts: I got a birthday present, I got a weird phone call.

"The real problem is that one learns early the 'polite' ways to ask for things, and this way is not in the British canon of polite requests," Murphy concludes. When it's new to you, "can I get might sound a little more greedy/impolite."

The "politeness" is entirely a matter of custom, however, not denotation. Emily Post, in the 1922 edition of "Etiquette," explained that "Best Society has only one phrase in acknowledgment of an introduction: 'How do you do?' It literally accepts no other."

Is that because "How do you do?" is inherently more polite than the once-taboo "Pleased to meet you?" Of course not. If "How do you do" were the latest salute among under-25s, we would surely hear a chorus of traditionalists demanding, "What do they mean, How do you do? How do I do what?"

As for "It was the least I could do," "Think nothing of it," and all such deprecating responses to "Thank you," they are not to be taken literally. They mean simply, "Whatever trouble it was, I was glad to do it for you."

I'm not sure why Americans have a hard time with this sort of modesty. Even Murphy was unsettled, she reports, by an unfamiliar version of "you're welcome," after she thanked her South African boss for a pay advance: "He handed over some number of rand and said It's a pleasure at which point I . . . wigged out and exclaimed It is NOT a pleasure! It's an inconvenience to you!"

But even "You're welcome," our default formula, is a mere 100 years old, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For a millennium or so before it arrived, there must have been other acceptable ways to express the sentiment.

I'm not arguing that all responses to "thank you" are equally appropriate everywhere. From a flight attendant handing out 200 bagels, "Mm-hmm" is fine with me; let her save her voice for the emergency landing instructions. On the other hand, if I thank a waiter in a fancy restaurant, I'd rather he didn't respond "no sweat."

But I wouldn't accuse him of rudeness. To take offense at someone else's kindly intended idiom because you have figured out, after much thought, how to read it as an insult -- well, I'm sorry, and I hate to say it, but if you'll forgive my speaking plainly, that's just cranky.

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