Following on from Thanksgiving Day yesterday and from our wonderful assembly this morning to celebrate our sporting achievements, this seemed an obvious choice for this week’s theme. So I learned something today……did you know anything about the origins of the word “thank”? It turns out I certainly didn’t, and I honestly feel rather ashamed about that.
I mean, I have been on this planet for all but half a century and until now I have never thought to look into the origins of a concept that is central to so much of human custom and etiquette. Language is just a device (albeit an incredibly sophisticated one) for trying to give expression to all of that rather messy, nefarious stuff we call thoughts and feelings.
Because the meaning of words can be distilled, refined or diluted over the course of time, we can often find that our understanding of not only a word, but also of the concept it is trying to give meaning to, can be enhanced by researching its origins.
So what are the origins of the word, “thank”? thank (v.) Old English þancian, þoncian ;to give thanks, thank, to recompense, to reward; from Proto-Germanic *thankojan, from *thankoz ;thought; gratitude," from Proto Indo-European root *tong- ;to think, feel.; It is related phonetically to “think” as “song” is to “sing” Online Etymology Dictionary In other words (sorry!) the word “thank’ has a shared heritage with the word “think”.
There was a time in my Scottish childhood when I was guilty of using the word “thank” as the past participle for the verb “to think” and it now seems I was not so terribly wrong as I was then led to believe! Look again at the definition of the original Proto Indo-European word “tong”- “to think, feel”. It seems that the heritage of the word thank lies right in the middle of the aforementioned “messy, nefarious stuff” and, therefore, right at the heart of the things that distinguish us as a species from the rest of the animal world.
The verb “to thank”, expressions like, “to give thanks” and, “to feel thankful”, these are our best attempts at giving expression to something really quite profound, to a very unique human experience. They mean that we have reflected on (hence the links with the concept of thinking, I suppose) that action, that person, that experience and found it/him/her quite special in some way and we are also aware that a distinct and quite wonderful emotion has been evoked in us as a result that we feel we want to give expression to; that, I think, is why we say, “Thank you”.
The rules of custom and etiquette mean that we are all a little guilty perhaps, of using the phrase, “thank you” as little more than culturally demanded punctuation rather than an attempt to really express gratitude.
So perhaps we should take a moment to think a little more deeply about the things, the experiences and the people in our lives that causes us to feel that elusive emotion we call gratitude* and, having felt that emotion, then see if we can find some satisfactory way to give expression to it. *”Gratitude” shares its etymology with the word “grace”, by the way…