William Safire died in 2009, but I think he may be looking on happily from heaven’s library at our new conversation-enders, “Stay safe” and/or “Stay healthy.”
If he were here, he’d be delighted to hear what I’m hearing — the noticeable lack of that mainstay of recent decades, “Have a nice day!”
In Safire’s book “On Language,” the subject of previous posts, he wrote of a “H.A.N.D. backlash” upon the land at the time (1980). Replies sent by his irate readers included “Thank you, but I have other plans,” “Too late,” and “How much does one cost?”
The roots of “Have a nice day” go back so deep that, as Safire wrote, “Etymologist Peter Tamony credits Roland Dickison of California State University at Sacramento with unearthing the earliest use in English. In 1387, Chaucer wrote in ‘The Canterbury Tales’: ‘And hoom wente every man the righte way, there was na-moore but ‘Fare wel, have a good day.’ ” (After the main entry about the phrase, a letter from a reader to Safire points out that the “a” doesn’t fit the poetic meter — “Fare wel, have good day” was in the reader’s edition of Chaucer.)
Safire traces the development of the expression through an ad agency in 1956 (“Have a happy day”) through CBS broadcasting in the ’60s (Marvin Kalb ending his radio reports “Have a good day”) to a commentator in 1971, John K. Jessup, who worried about “Have a good day” eventually being contracted — just as Englishmen 400 to 500 years before had turned “God be with you,” the standard farewell at the time, to “Goodbye.” Jessup predicted that “Have a good day” would turn into “something like ‘Hagady,’ which sounds like… a health nut’s breakfast gruel.”
The earliest reference Safire provides for “Have a nice day” is in Kirk Douglas’ 1948 movie, “A Letter to Three Wives.”
Although Safire rightly called “Have a nice day” “a linguistic phenomenon of the ’70s,” it was facing a backlash by decade’s end as Safire wrote “On Language.” He described the expression’s problem clearly:
“The distinction is this: When H.A.N.D. is spoken with sincerity and eye contact, it is a social asset and a note of civility in a hurried world; but when it is spoken automatically, in the same tone as ‘Get lost,’ it comes across with a resounding clank of falsity.”
So our present-day, sincere and hopeful “Stay safe” and “Stay healthy” to friends, at the end of calls or necessarily rare visits, don’t have that same clank about them. Let’s keep it that way.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.