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I've heard someone say "Much obliged!" a couple of times, instead of the usual "Thank you!". A common phrase in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, but certainly unusual in English. My question is: is it old-fashioned? Polite? Or pedantic?

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When used as "I am much obliged!" it takes on a certain formality. When used as "Much obliged," it has a certain hokey quality that makes it sound like a line from an old Western movie. –  David M Feb 17 at 16:32
Off topic (hence the comment) but which dialect of Spanish is this common in? I have never heard it used in Spain (and it makes no sense since obligado only carries the meaning of being forced to do something). –  terdon Feb 17 at 16:34
@terdon Sorry, my mistake. As a matter-of-fact it is only in Portuguese that we find exactly the same words and the same meaning. "Muito Obrigado!" means exactly that one feels indebted to another person. –  Luis Feb 17 at 22:04
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3 Answers

It is a reasonably common alternative to "thank you" in the American Southern regional dialects, based on my experience. It also has an old-fashioned feel courtesy of western movies, so some may use it in a tongue-in-cheek or archaic flavor to hearken back to that era.

"Much obliged, ma'am."

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I agree with this. Especially without the "I am" in front of it. It is more hokey than fancy. –  David M Feb 17 at 16:31
There's an old Southern US regionalism that describes someone who's a "taker" as having "a handful of 'gimme' and a mouthful of 'much obliged'." Dizzy Gillespie used it as a song title in the 40s. –  Jim Mack Feb 18 at 4:29
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Obligation means indebtedness, so to use it in the phrase "much obliged" is to say "I am indebted to you". I would say it is polite, but no more so than a prim "Thank you". It can also be considered old-fashioned; it originated some time in the late 1500s and became popular in the 1600s. It's used much less today. However, it's only slightly older than "thank you":

Google Ngram

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In Britain it is a fairly normal everyday colloquialism, used in different ways. For example:

When someone has done you a favour: 'Thanks indeed, much obliged!'

A farmer speaking to someone who has asked permission to walk across his land: 'Yes, that's perfectly alright, but I'd be much obliged if you would close the gates behind you as you go'.

Reporting an experience to a friend; 'I felt very much obliged to the policeman who helped me get the car back on the road.'

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In Portuguese we use exactly the same phrase "muito obrigado" with the same meaning. It has been mentioned above that "much obliged" originated some time in the late 1500s. That is when Portugal was at its prime and I shouldn't be surprised if the English imported the phrase then. –  Luis Feb 17 at 22:12
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