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shameless pleading

Many happy returns

Play it again, Sam, until people don’t get the reference.

Dear Word Detective: My birthday is coming, and already I’m being wished “many happy returns,” and it suddenly struck me that this seemed an odd thing to wish. I’m getting to an age where I’d love to be able to “return” this aging self and exchange for a newer, more tech-savvy one! Is it somehow connected to returns one gets on an investment? Dictionary definitions for “returns” as a noun didn’t seem to pertain. Thanks for any light you can shine. — Linda.

Gee, that’s a good question. I know what you mean about wanting to return and exchange yourself for a newer version, and a few years ago I might have agreed with the sentiment. But the more TV I watch, the less I want to live forever. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many Family Feud reruns. If you compare the contestant answers from ten years ago with those from current shows, you’re forced to conclude that the zeitgeist has taken a rather dark turn. Today, for example, in response to “Name something you grope for in the dark” (Um, light switch? Alarm clock?), a seemingly nice lady replied “Your gun.” Don’t make any sudden noises outside Grandma’s door, folks.

“Many happy returns” does seem like an odd thing to say, especially right after “Happy birthday!” I vaguely remember thinking, as a kid, that it had something to do with returning gifts, or perhaps the speaker was saying that the warm birthday greeting was “in return” for good wishes in the past from the birthday-person. In any case, this is obviously a seriously weird phrase. Or maybe not.

“Return” as both a noun and a verb was adopted into English in the 14th century from the Old French “retourn” (noun) and “retourner” (verb). The verb, which arose slightly earlier, originally meant “to turn back, to come back to a place or person” (“re,” back, plus “tourner,” to turn). Both the noun and verb have since, of course, developed dozens of extended and figurative uses, from “returns” on an investment (where your money comes back to you, hopefully having grown in its absence) to the IRS “returns” (forms submitted) in which you bid a big chunk of those investment “returns” a permanent farewell. A “return” can also be a ball hit back over the net in tennis, the act of giving or sending something back to the owner or source, and the lever or key on a typewriter (remember those?) that causes the carriage to zip back to the right to begin a new line. A “Return” key on a computer is now usually labeled “Enter,” but is still often marked with the typewriter “Return” character.

“Many happy returns” first appeared in print in the early 18th century, and it was used not just on birthdays, but on any happy occasion (New Year’s Day, Christmas, etc.). The original, and still more formal, form of the phrase was “many happy returns of the day” (“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years,” 1714), and there we have the simple explanation of the mystery. The “return” refers to the passage of a single year and the recurrence of the birthday; “many happy returns” wishes the birthday celebrant many happy birthdays (i.e., a long, happy life). Obviously, this also works just as well for annual occasions like Christmas, New Years, Arbor Day, etc.

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