“In this economy I can barely afford to spend extra money on pleasantries.”

Talk is cheap, but evidently not cheap enough, in this economy.

I’m celebrating having just turned in two sets of grades (two more, unbelievably, to go!) by taking for today’s blog a sentence from one of the last essays I read this morning.

I’ve noticed in the last few years more and more people using the word “pleasantries” and more and more of them using it wrong. I suppose the descriptive linguists among us would say that the users aren’t wrong; the meaning of the word is changing. Dammit, I say they’re wrong.

Webster’s Collegiate says, in its (outdated?) way, that a pleasantry is “an agreeable playfulness in conversation: banter.” It might also be “a humorous act or remark: jest.” I grew up using this word (when I did use it, which admittedly was not every day) to mean light chit-chat the purpose of which was entertainment and mutual charm, which I guess matches Webster’s first definition pretty well. Where did I get my understanding of the word? Why, in 19th-century novels, of course—isn’t that where we all get our vocabulary? Anyhow, it’s a nice word. Two friends or acquaintances could bump into one another, exchange a few pleasantries, and go about their thereby-brightened day.

Gradually, though, I have noticed a new definition hanging around that seems appropriate enough and obviously comes from the appearance of the word: “pleasantries” to mean “pleasant remarks.” An exchange of pleasantries can comfortably include more ordinary, but still light, conversation: “You’re looking well!” “Why, thank you! By the way, I’ve been hearing such nice things about your sister’s new job!” …and blah blah, just nice, pleasant comments. Well, why not?

But I have also seen more opaque uses of the word, this statement of my student’s being one. I’m sure he didn’t mean that in better times he would have been happy to spend a few dollars on some nice remarks but now he can’t afford them; he seems to be thinking more along the line of “amusements,” or maybe “nice things.” A few fun apps for the iPhone? a piece of pie? an evening of one-act plays? a new hat?

Suddenly the word seems to be sharing territory in my mind with other purchasable things like “toiletries,” nice things for the toilette (eau de cologne, scented powder, nail polish, hand lotion, hair gel, you know the sort of thing). This gets extended to little soaps, bubble bath, shaving lotion. I hope it doesn’t suddenly get extended to johnny mops and disinfectant, things for the toilet…

If toiletries are nice things to buy for the toilette, maybe the look-alike pleasantries are nice things to buy for the achievement of niceness. It works for me; maybe it worked the same for my student.

I didn’t read the “pleasantries” paper until early this morning, so it can’t possibly explain my having dreamed of a man whose flirting I was enjoying (he had also brought me some lovely blue flowers) until he presented me with a bill and I realized he was a gigolo! Even before my student made me aware that that was the done thing nowadays, I must have contracted to spend some money on pleasantries.

Don’t you do it. Save your money! Pleasantries, in their best sense, are gratis—charm for charm’s sake. Exchange a few today and see if you don’t feel the better for this, an indulgence we can all afford if we have a little wit to spread around.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““In this economy I can barely afford to spend extra money on pleasantries.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Ah, 19th-Century English fiction–what can’t it do? And why do people love Dickens (yes, I know it’s Christmas) and yet draw a blank, many of them, when Trollope is mentioned? And yet, Trollope was king of the pleasantry (and king of a lot of other things too!).
    What is more sweet than one of his works, more cheering, more civilizing? Well, yes, there’s Jane, of course, who had her own marvelous universe in which amiable conversation ranked very high indeed. But Trollope was more prolific. Anyone who’s run out of Austen and is forced to read reconstructed endings of “Sanditon,” hoping for a miraculous resurrection, values tons and tons of books from one wonderful writer –and such affordable pleasantries, as our lending libraries are free, rather than by costly subscription. To be fair to Dickens, by the way,
    there IS “Pickwick Papers,” which may stand alone for its sweetness and light. But when people use the word “Dickensian,” how often do they mean, instead, the blacking factory and Bill Sykes?

    • RAB

      I used “Dickensian” to describe the kind of world he described, with the poor left to the discriminations of the “charities” and workhouses, and the institutions milking the general population. The “system” so heartless and predatory, the few good and kind souls (of various classes) shining like candles… Nobody draws it better!

  • RAB

    Oops, meant to say I USE “Dickensian”…
    Thanks for the Trollope thoughts. A practically overlooked substance, but addictive once tried!
    Thanks too for the “Pickwick Papers” reminder. I was actually thinking of Mr. Pickwick and the Christmas dance at Dingley Dell this past Christmas Eve at my sister’s house. Talk about celebration!

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