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I sometimes have heard somebody replying with Why, thank you. instead of Thank you.

What is the meaning of the first phrase? What is the difference between the two phrases?

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Sounds fake to me. I told my father, "Happy Birthday". He answered, "Why, thank you, Scott." It felt condescending. –  user55782 Nov 6 '13 at 13:51

3 Answers 3

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Why is used here as an interjection. According to Merriam-Webster:

—used to express mild surprise, hesitation, approval, disapproval, or impatience <why, here's what I was looking for>

In my experience, the extra why in Why, thank you is used mainly to avoid appearing too abrupt in one's thankfulness.

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I mostly hear it used just as your MWD reference would have it - in mild surprise or approval. –  cori Aug 24 '10 at 6:40
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That's why you'll hear things like "why, certainly!" –  user730 Aug 24 '10 at 13:00
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It can be used in the "mild surprise" sense to imply a sense of surprise that the person being thanked has done the favour for which they're being thanked - i.e. to imply that they have gone beyond what was expected, and thus deserve extra thanks and appreciation. –  psmears Jan 12 '11 at 19:08

It is definitely expressing mild surprise. Imagine you're giving a dinner party. You turn to the person sitting at the table next to you and ask them to pass the salt. They do. You say "Thank you." You wouldn't say "Why, thank you.", because there's no surprise, you were fully expecting them to pass it to you. But if someone says "I must compliment you, this stew is delicious!", you might well say "Why, thank you!", because you weren't expecting the compliment, it was a bit of a surprise. You could still say just "Thank you." in this case, but you wouldn't really ever say "Why, thank you." in the first case.

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The OED has four definitions of why under the sub-heading ‘Used interjectionally, before a sentence or clause’. They are:

as an expession of surprise;

emphasizing or calling more or less abrupt attention to the statement following . . . , in opposition to a possible or vaguely apprehended doubt or objection;

as an emphasized call or summons, expressing some degree of impatience;

anexpression of content, acquiescence, or relief.

Why derives from Old English hwæt, the first word of ‘Beowulf’, where it is used to attract the attention of the listeners, so it is perhaps not surprising to find it used in contexts such as these.

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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 6 '13 at 16:37

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