Letter Closings: A History Lesson in Signing Off

Associated Press

What's in a letter closing--the words used to sign off before the signature?

A lot, according to Walter Macauley, who heads a national temporary and permanent employment service that has placed thousands of secretaries who are involved in corporate correspondence.

"Few things tell us so much about a period in history in so few words," said Macauley, president and chief executive officer of Adia Personnel Services, with headquarters here. "The way we signed off over the centuries is a window into societal values and etiquette of the times."

Long, flowery letter closures reflected an age when people took greater pleasure in writing and reading, often by candlelight, Macauley said.

In today's hurried world of cellular phones, fax transmissions and electronic mail, letter closures and letters themselves may soon be on the endangered species list, he said.

Goes Back to Bible

"Before time management became the buzzword of modern business and keyboards replaced quills, the complimentary close really was complimentary," Macauley said. "Going as far back as the Bible, the Epistle of Paul in the Apostle to the Colossians closed: 'This salutation by my own hand--Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.'

"Closings that show elaborate respect obviously belong to an earlier era. For example, Don Luis de Velasco, viceroy of Spanish America, wrote Charles I, king of Spain in the 1500s:

" 'Your Sacred Catholic Caesarean Majesty's faithful servant who kisses your Majesty's imperial feet. . . .' "

If there were ever a best seller for closures that survived the centuries, Macauley said, it would have to be: "Your most obedient and most humble servant," as used by Thomas Jefferson to the newly elected President, George Washington. A slight variation, appearing in a letter from the duke of Buckingham to King George I in the early 1600s, said: "Your Majesty's Most Humble Slave and Dog . . . Steenie."

Initials and abbreviations were common, too, even after a lengthy close. Sometimes, however, this caused confusion, Macauley pointed out.

"Take the British poet, Alexander Pope, who in the 1700s signed many of his letters and poems A. Pope. For years, during his time and later, people pondered, which Pope?"

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov obviously didn't believe that "less is more," as indicated by his closing to actress Olga Knipper in the 1880s:

"Well, I firmly clasp and kiss your hand. Keep well, cheerful, happy, work, leap, let yourself be carried away, sing and, if possible, don't forget a provincial writer, your zealous admirer. . . ."

Perhaps, Macauley suggested, Emily Post said it best in her book, "Etiquette, 1922":

"Ever since the 18th Century, the English speaking have been busy pruning away all ornament of expression, even the last remaining graces, 'kindest regards' . . . leaving us nothing but an abrupt 'Yours truly.' "

'Trite and Tired'

These days, using "Yours truly" would clearly be a mistake, "a platitude--trite and tired," New York handwriting expert and letter collector Charles Hamilton calls it.

Today's safe, reliable "Sincerely" could suffer a similar demise if UC Berkeley sociology professor Neil Smelser is right: "Does it not suggest that we are under the suspicion of being insincere?"

Those who work in somewhat of a high-tech office may have already dismissed the question of which closure to use, the employment service head said.

"Today's technological revolution is changing the way business people close and send business letters," he explained. "Correspondence sent from a (personal computer) terminal via electronic mail often excludes closings altogether and lists only one's name or code name, address and telephone number.

"This may soon replace the traditional letter as we know it."

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