In April, 1874, the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell received this letter:
I thank you for your great kindness in having sent me the new Edition of yr remarkable work; and I am very glad that it has been so highly successful for a 4th Edition to have appeared within so short a time. Pray believe me Dear Sir,
Yours with much respect
Contrast this with the sign-off closing an email I received yesterday:
I have to saying, knowing the sender, “Best” was uttered with a certain irony, by which I don’t mean he wished me the worst, rather he knew I’d be amused by the absurdity of “Best”. The last time I got an email ending with “Best” was a couple of years ago when I sent a tome to a literary agent who sent me an acknowledgement of receipt, for which I was grateful, even though I immediately knew that we would not establish a connection. “Best” was truly valedictory. He might just as easily have written, “Later” which in this case would have signified “Won’t see you later.” Getting a communication that ends with “Best” is like your girlfriend dumping you by text.
Saying goodbye seems to be inherently socially awkward. What is the right formula for a given situation? I once received a job application from a strong candidate whose covering letter was fatally flawed – at least in the eyes of a colleague of mine – by the fact that he had not ended with “Yours sincerely”, but with “Sincerely yours.” My colleague thought it smacked of insincerity. I defended the candidate on the grounds that he had worked for a time in the USA. “Sincerely yours” has a trans-Atlantic ring to my ears. It sounds insincere on this side of the Pond precisely because it’s so sincere.
“Yours faithfully” sounds old fashioned and formal. It is the language of the bank manager. You seldom see it now. Maybe nobody takes seriously the idea that anybody “acts in good faith” any longer. North of the border, you sometimes hear “Yours aye”. I don’t care for it. A military man at a Burns supper with whisky on his breath would say “Yours aye”. “Yours truly”? Yours truly wouldn’t adopt that either. I’m either yours or I’m not yours. I might say “Yours” and leave it at that but I’d have to know you just a little.
Whatever formula you apply, it generally needs to be preceded by a qualifier, to avoid a sense of abruptness. It’s a bit like taking your leave from somebody’s house after a dinner party. You can’t suddenly say “Goodbye” and vanish (though doubtless on occasion your hosts wish you would). You need to linger for a moment on the doorstep. The Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote a short piece about a socially awkward young man invited to tea who stays for ever because he can’t find the right words on which to depart.
“With kind regards and best wishes…” Best wishes are okay, but why are the regards kind? Only the recipient of the kindness can evaluate it. You could write, “With regards kindly meant…” but this sounds as if you are bestowing your pity on someone. It’s a minefield. “Best regards” sounded a bit gauche a few years ago but has become quite fashionable.
But to return to the email which ended with “Best”, I’ve just looked at my reply, which ends thus:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste.
That wasn’t entirely serious either. It set me thinking, why have we stopped writing like Charles Darwin? What is the fatal attraction to us in particular, who inhabit these islands, of irony? Why are we embarrassed by an expression of sentiment?
I think of irony as a kind of perpetual in-joke. The less foreigners understand it, the more it is valued. Continental Europeans are exasperated by it and North Americans just don’t know it’s there. The English in particular have this crazy compulsion to say that something is what it is not. Some people’s entire mode of expression is like a Constance Garnett translation of a Dostoevsky novel, to the accompaniment of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. Every utterance has a hidden agenda. Some people live out their entire lives at an ironic remove. Irony is a survival mechanism for people who have been put in a bind. It is the seditious expression of people compelled to live in a lunatic asylum.
Now I need to think of some way of winding up this rambling blog. Enough already. In the immortal words of Brian Matthew, that’s your lot for this week. See you next week. I thank you for your continued indulgence, hoping to remain, believe me, your most obedient servant