What’s in a word? All about merci

A brief history of the French 'thank you' - from Roman times to modern Quebec...

22 November 2016
By Connexion journalist

CHRISTMAS is coming up and - hopefully - thanking others will be coming to mind.

The convention by which children are taught to write thank you notes for presents is not as prevalent in France as in the UK, but good manners are always appreciated.

The little word merci dates back to the Romans with a meaning of ‘wages’, then later it meant a favour or ‘mercy’, which made its way into English, and still later ‘thanks’.
You still see the old meaning in expressions like être à la merci de l’orage (at the mercy of the storm) - in which case merci is feminine.

As for the ‘thanks’ meaning, in medieval times they would say: ‘grand merci!’ – referring to the ‘great favour’ someone had done you (you can still say ‘un grand merci’).
A simple merci often fits the bill, but if you are writing you might use je vous remercie – I thank you (remercier is ‘to thank’, not ‘thank again’).

This may be followed by de or pour, though it is always de if it is then followed by the full infinitive form of a verb: je vous remercie de m’avoir aidé or je vous remercie pour votre cadeau.

Another formal way of thanking is en vous remerciant… You might write it in expressions such as En vous remerciant par avance… (thanking you in advance). Merci d’avance is an acceptable, more relaxed alternative.

The noun is un merci (‘a thank you’ – referring to the word) or un remerciement (the act of thanking). A polite response to merci is merci à vous (‘it is I who thank you’).
Do not be surprised if someone says merci to refuse the offer of, for example, a drink. It is often short for ‘no thanks’.

Merci can sometimes have a sense of ‘please’ in a phrase such as merci de me laisser faire mon travail (please let me get on with my work).

A variant on merci beaucoup is mille mercis. There is also merci bien (thank you kindly) which can sometimes also indicate refusal, eg. Lui rendre visite? Merci bien, après ce qu’il a fait… (Visit him? No thanks, after what he did).

Standard French has no casual word for ‘thanks’, but in Quebec you may say marci.

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