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A common answer to being thanked for doing something is "It's the least I could do," which by my understanding is basically synonymous with "It was nothing".

Recently I received a gift as thanks for being generally helpful, and - included in the message accompanying the gift - the giver uses this expression.

Taking the words literally leaves me with the impression of "I've been helpful over a long time, and in return you do 'the least you can' as thanks..." It seems kind of negative.

Is this just something that shoud not be taken literally, or is the expression being misused here?

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closed as general reference by MετάEd, aedia λ, Kris, tchrist, Kristina Lopez Feb 11 '13 at 15:55

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
In my motherhood language (Farsi/Persian) it is a very common compliment and positive as your first idea. It is better to be optimist in this case! If your audiences know about your friend's nationality may can help more. Culture Always meets language but sometimes hugs it! :) –  Persian Cat Feb 11 '13 at 0:16
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You have not provided enough detail for ANYONE to answer your specific question with certainty. If you want a useful answer the least you must do is to provide the phrase in context - at least the whole sentence it is in and better, the few sentences around it. Note that my approximate above use of the phrase is NOT in fact the same 'figure of speech" and is LIGHTLY negative. But "It was/is the least that I could do" is almost invariably used in a positive sense. If some one says "He did the least that he could do" then that is not actually the same as the phrase in question. –  Russell McMahon Feb 11 '13 at 1:06
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Welcome to English Language & Usage. This question is General Reference: Cambridge Dictionary. Don't be discouraged if the question is closed on that account, though; come back again! –  MετάEd Feb 11 '13 at 5:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think it is meant to be interpreted along the lines of, "Even this thing which I have done for you is only the minimum that you deserve." It is meant as a compliment.

Another connotation is that the speaker has not gone too far out of his way, so the listener should not feel guilty about receiving something so nice: "Aw, you shouldn't have!" "Oh, it's the least I could do."

Of course I could see the phrase being interpreted in the way you are saying ironically. But generally, literal interpretation of idiomatic phases doesn't get one very far.

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It means "my feelings of gratitude/condolence/sympathy/pride/etc. are much greater than this gift or act conveys alone".

It's mainly a phatic expression, but you should interpret it as a nice thing to say, especially useful when one can't think of anything more apt.

It certainly can be said with "country-club politeness", but unless it was spat out through gritted teeth and accompanied with a handshake that left you with bloody half-moon fingernail marks on your hand, you should assume they meant something nice.

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