Dear Word Detective: My question might sound ridiculous, but I’ve been wondering — where did the word “thanks” derive from? — Vince Leguesse.
That’s not only not a ridiculous question, it’s a question that I am astounded no one has ever asked me before. It makes me wonder how many other truly omnipresent English words are lurking out there unexplained. After all, I’m not exactly a social butterfly (sometimes, in fact, it seems like most of my conversations are with cats and dogs), and I know I say “thanks” at least ten times on an average day. Heck, if you eat in a place with waiter service, you probably say “thanks” at least five times in the course of the meal.
What makes the “thank-less” history of this column all the more odd is that “thanks” is actually a very interesting word.
There are, of course, several forms of “thanks.” When we say “thanks” to a waiter for bringing us a clean fork, we’re using a short form of “thank you,” which itself is short for “I thank you.” As a noun, we use “thank” only in the plural (“thanks”) today to mean “a feeling of, or an expression of, gratitude” (often with the verb “to give,” as found in the American holiday Thanksgiving). We also use “thanks” in the more figurative form “thanks to” meaning “because of” (“Thanks to our insurance, we had a new car right away”), as well as ironically or sarcastically (“We were two hours late to the party, thanks to Bob’s awesome navigation skills”).
In whatever form we use “thanks,” noun or verb, given or received, we are, in most cases, speaking primarily of a sentiment, an intellectual and emotional expression, of gratitude. That means that “thanks” start in the human brain, which brings us to the root of “thanks,” which is simply the very similar word “think.” The same prehistoric Germanic root produced both “think” and “thank,” and when the noun “thank” appeared in English around A.D. 735, it meant simply “thought.” Over the centuries, “thank” came to mean specifically “a favorable thought” or “goodwill,” especially goodwill or gratitude felt in return for a favor done. So the declaration “I give you thanks,” from which our modern forms such as “Thank you” and “Thanks” descended, was simply a way of saying “I have good feelings toward you because of what you’ve done for me.”
Of course, if we learned nothing else from The Sopranos, it’s that it may be the thought that counts, but nothing really says “Thanks, pal” quite like an envelope full of money.