I’ve been in Italy with my family the last couple of weeks, but now I’m back at my desk and ready for action. Well, “ready for action” may be overstating the case. I’m swinging the machete through the weeds, trying to catch up on my correspondence. If you sent me an email in the last two weeks, thanks for your patience. If you are out of patience, feel free to re-send your email.

Anyway, Italy—it’s a beautiful place with lovely people and a beautiful language, which I didn’t speak as well as Duolingo had led me to believe. But one word that caught my attention was prego. It’s a multi-purpose word of politeness. Sometimes it means “Please” (though Per favore is more common), sometimes it means “Go ahead” or “Here you go,” or “Could you repeat that?” but most often it’s used as the equivalent of “You’re welcome.” You say  Grazie (“Thank you”), and the other person says Prego.

Prego literally means “I pray.” In Shakespeare, prithee—literally, “I pray you”means “please.” A remnant of this idea survives in a phrase like “Pray tell.” And when you come to the door at the same time as another person and say “Please, you go first,” or simply “Please,” with a gesture of the hand, you are very much invoking the spirit of Prego

I’m a little vague on the specifics of how “I pray” became a response to Grazie, But I think it has to do with the idea that Grazie is itself a kind of blessing—”Grace to you” or, perhaps, “You have been gracious to me.” Maybe Prego originally meant something like “I pray grace to you too” or “I pray that I receive the grace that you have prayed for me.” I don’t suppose there’s any need to overthink it. I don’t imagine Italians think too much about what Prego “really” means, any more than you think much about “You’re welcome.”

But here’s what really got me interested in Prego: sometimes Italians say it before you say Grazie. In English, it’s rude or sarcastic (or possibly just facetious) to say “You’re welcome” before someone says “Thank you.” All of the goodwill expressed in “You’re welcome” gets blown up if the other person hasn’t yet expressed his or her gratitude. (This article from the New York Times Magazine asks “When Did ‘You’re Welcome’ Become a Gloat?”) But when the Italian waiter brings your bowl of pasta, he might say Prego whether you say Grazie or not. I realize that in this case, “Here you go” is probably a better translation than “You’re welcome.” But it got me to thinking, I wish we had a polite way of saying “You’re welcome” that doesn’t depend on the other person’s expression of gratitude.

“I went to some trouble on your behalf, but I was glad to do it, and I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you well.” There’s no way of expressing that idea without being weird. And yet I think that’s a very appropriate posture for any responsible adult: you put good things into the world with the intention of blessing other people. To put it another way, you try to make people feel a little more welcome in the world, whether they express their gratitude or not.

I try not to be overly prescriptive when it comes to other people’s use of language, but I will say I’m not crazy about those responses to “Thank you” that tend to minimize—phrases like, “It’s no big deal,” or “It’s nothing,” or “No worries,” or “Don’t mention it.” Again, I may be overthinking, but “It’s nothing” feels to me like, “I didn’t go to any effort on your behalf,” whereas “You’re welcome” feels more like, “I was glad to go to some effort on your behalf because you’re worth it.” On the other hand, I’m not ready to say that the 496 million native Spanish speakers who say De nada are getting it wrong.

I was surprised to learn that “You’re welcome” is a relatively new development. Shakespeare uses the phrase once in Cymbeline (“Thou art welcome, Caius”), but apparently “You’re welcome” didn’t come into widespread use until the early twentieth century. And from this very interesting discussion, it appears that “You’re welcome” is much more common in North America than in the UK. Readers from outside North America, can you shed light on this?

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