Electronic communication has provided us with a dilemma. Just how will we sign off from these brief messages, often sent nearly as fast as one could ask a question of someone standing next to you?
What we know as the traditional complimentary closing at the bottom of correspondence is also called valediction, which is derived from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell.”
Saying farewell in today’s short and to-the-point bursts of email communication has developed into complimentary one-word closings such as regards, thanks, best, or some other word denoting the circumstances. Farewells are even disappearing altogether, being replaced with merely an automatic signature applied at the end of the message.
Historically, however, complimentary closings on correspondence were a literary art in themselves of expressing reassurance, loyalty, and respect. The closing was carefully matched with the type of relationship the letter writer had with the recipient or the circumstances that the letter was addressing.
According to “The Empathic Civilization” by Jeremy Rifkin, “the phrase yours sincerely was originally used to communicate the idea of clean or pure or unadultered. Wines were referred to as sincere. When applied to people, the term ‘sincere’ implied pure or virtuous. By the sixteenth century, it was being used to contrast pretense from truth.”
Good examples of historical complimentary closings may be found in the James Madison Papers archived in the Library of Congress. Some of his farewells were:
- With perfect respect and consideration I have the honor to be your most humble and obedient servant
- Accept my friendly respects
- I have the honor to be sir your obedient servant
- With every sentiment of respect and attachment I remain, Dear Sir, your obedient servant
- I pray you Sir to accept assurances of my distinguished esteem and best regards
George Washington signed off on his letter of September 17, 1787, to the President of the Continental Congress, submitting the Constitution for consideration in this manner: “With great respect, WE have the honor to be SIR, Your Excellency’s most Obedient and humble servants.”
Somehow the elegant closings of the great letters of American history contributed to making them all that they were and would have been diminished to have been signed off with merely “regards,” sincerely yours,” or “yours cordially.” Yet to say the least, any of these type of elegant farewells on correspondence today, whether in formal business letters or any email, would come across as rather suspicious of someone NOT being sincere.
Perhaps we not only have lost the elegant prose but are just not obedient, humble servants anymore.