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Newsletter December 06 - 2003FREE email English course

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Greeting expressions or "Well, hello!"

Not so long ago the word "cheers" was reserved for when you raised your glass and drank to someone's health and the other person or the others if it was a group responded with another "cheers". A variation of the word also crops up in the word "cheerio", which is a friendly way of saying "good-bye". And of course they're all related to the word "cheer" - which has a very old meaning of "comfort" as in the archaic expression "be of good cheer" - roughly meaning "be happy/comfortable". Again we can try and "cheer someone up" - help them to feel "cheerful/happy".

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And also if we're watching our favourite tennis player or team, we can "cheer" them by shouting out enthusiastically when they're doing well. So as you can see it's a busy little word and as you can't keep a good word down, it's come back in force as "cheers" and in the UK you might think it was the most popular word in the language because you hear it endlessly. When a sales assistant hands you something to sign it is used, when you sign it and hand it back, it's used again. If you hold a door open for someone, up it comes. Even if you accidentally knock into someone in the street and step aside, the recipient of your accidental knock will probably say it and just to show you meant no harm you say it too. To someone of the older generation returning to the UK after a long absence it might seem every member of the population was spending their time drinking.

That's the trouble. There is a very limited vocabulary used for the ordinary day-to-day salutations and certain words seem to do all the work. The strangest thing of all is when you are introduced to someone. A says "How do you do?" And then B says "How do you do?" as well. The result is that two questions are left hanging in the air and unanswered. But then the English tend to be reticent in other forms of typical conversation. A says "Thank you" and B just grins and says nothing. If the thanking is very effusive and goes on, there are one or two expressions you can employ: "You're welcome" or "Don't mention it" and if you really don't feel too talkative you could simply say "Not at all". Now in many languages this just isn't good enough and there are set expressions that you use in your response.

More problems come in the business of what you say when you meet someone out in the street. Of course if you are a coward, you could "cut them dead" - totally ignore them - but then that is a bit rude and isn't a good idea. "Hi" is becoming a firm favourite in the street, on the telephone and of course as a way of starting your email. "Hello" is a close runner up and both are clearly informal. More formal ways of greeting come in the following way: "Good morning/afternoon/evening". But again people tend to use these expressions when addressing a group or an audience. If you are very surprised to see someone in an unusual place there is another expression. You might be taking a stroll through the Gobi desert and suddenly you meet your next-door neighbour. Now "Hi" or "Hello" would be inappropriate and it would be better to say "Fancy seeing you here!"

In the countryside where everybody is not so busy rushing about as in the town meeting a stranger in a lane would probably require a "Good" something just to be polite even if the recipient is a total stranger. That reminds me of a student of mine some years ago when I was teaching in central London. She was a young and very sociable girl from the West Indies. At home she lived in a very small village where everybody knew everybody else. What she couldn't understand at first was why nobody reciprocated her bright "Good morning" to everybody she met during the rush hour on the London underground stations. She soon learnt that people in big cities hurrying to work aren't a friendly lot.

Then of course there are words you use when you part, go away, leave. In a previous century you might use the very dramatic "Farewell" but please don't say that when you've just bought a newspaper and are leaving the shop - they might start talking about you. "Good-bye" or simply "bye" are the favourites. "See you" is popular too and one that intrigues me because in most cases it is never fulfilled "See you later". Becoming even more common and perhaps this is a sign of the dangerous times we live in is "Take care".

Following up a question raised in our ESL Forum recently to do with "last night" and "yesterday evening" where the former is very late and possibly after bedtime and the latter is prior to that, what do we say as a salutation at the end of the day particularly if it's dark? You can of course fall back on "Hi" and "Hello" but somehow darkness seems to call for formality and "Good evening" would be right and if it's very late, "Good night" would be fine. And now I've got to find a way to finish this newsletter - oh I know "CHEERS!"

Alan Townend

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: Sociability.
Many thanks.

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Well, hello! 
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