Sunday, 6 January 2019

Signing off

I was wondering why British convention is to end a letter to someone whose name you don't know - i.e. one that starts 'Dear Sir or Madam,' - with 'Yours faithfully'. How can you be faithful to someone you've never met?

Well, it turns out to be a contraction of what was for centuries the standard valediction to letters, some version of:

'Believe me to have the honour to remain your faithful and obedient servant'

Sometimes, between friends, it got shortened to something like this, from John Wilkes:

Also, I believe it was considered good style to try to end your letter in a way that made your name the object of the last sentence. Here's Lord Chesterfield having a bit of fun with it:



But how did they end letters to people to whom they didn't feel in the least faithful, humble or servile? Well, generally, they just said it anyway, because it was meaningless boilerplate. I gather there's a song in Hamilton about that (No, I haven't seen Hamilton yet. Yes, I know I should). 

But not always. Here's Richard Savage in 1735, writing to a member of the Irish nobility of whom he is... not a fan. 







24 comments:

Anonymous said...

And here's Samuel Johnson (the lexicographer whose many health issues get their own separate page on Wikipedia; also the perfect answer to "did you ever see a statue raised to a critic?") combining "having a bit of fun" (as demonstrated above by Lord Chesterfield) with ending a letter to someone to whom he didn't feel in the least any of the above (Lord Chesterfield, in fact, who had promised to be a patron of the Dictionary but hadn't been any help whatsoever then tried to claim when it was finished that he'd financed it):
"[...] for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with such exaltation,

My Lord,

Your lordship's most humble,

most obedient servant,

SAM. JOHNSON."

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Eclectic Man said...

The last one is excellent, but another one I heard of was an accident. He was sending a critical e-mail out of his company, and instead of ending "Regards,... " accidentally typed "Retards, ..."

R.L. China said...

Why did they remove surnames from letters with that long em-dash, or en-dash, I can never remember which is which?

Anonymous said...

@ R. L. China: names were blanked out by the editors when those letters were published, to protect people's identities. (I can't remember whether it's an em-dash or en-dash either, though.)

Anonymous said...

In case anybody else is wondering:

— An em-dash is about the length of an m
– An en-dash is about the length of an n

:)

Anonymous said...

Isn't it yours faithfully when you know the name of the person and sincerely when it is Sir or Madam?

Clive W said...

No. JF has it right — if ‘right’ is a word you can even apply to an arbitrary convention.

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I once worked at a bedroom company and the office junior did a mail run of 3000 letters with a brochure. Which started with "Dear Sir or Madman"!

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