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I was surprised when I found out the meaning of a dialog like this:

- May I do something?
- Be my guest.

As for me, it looks really weird. Why 'be my guest' has the meaning 'do it, I don't mind'?

And one more thing: is it strictly informal, or it can also be used on writing (let's say, in email conversation)?

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3 Answers 3

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The OED defines it as you are welcome to (something); do as you wish. The earliest citation is dated 1955. It doesn’t seem weird to me. The speaker is inviting the other person to feel comfortable about what is being asked. I imagine it would occur predominantly in speech, but it would not necessarily be out of place in informal writing either.

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Agreed it wouldn't necessarily be out of place in informal writing, but on average I don't think it would be particularly suitable. It's normally a kind of metaphoric usage stretched from the literal Use my facilities freely, as if you were an honoured houseguest. (more succinctly, Mi casa su casa). In writing, the other person probably isn't in the right physical location for that to make sense, so I probably wouldn't write it myself. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 15:13
I agree with FumbleFingers: it is non-weird only with an extended meaning of guest (possibly influenced by this phrase itself), going beyond the usual "houseguest" sense of "guest". Imagine, for instance, if your wife asks you whether you mind her going away for a few days, and you answer "be my guest": the conflict with the literal meaning would definitely make that confusing. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 16 '11 at 15:45
@ShreevatsaR: Note that I'm only saying it's probably a stretch too far in writing. In informal speech, people often say this to mean exactly the same as Go ahead/Feel free [I don't mind]. I think there the metaphoric sense is tied to the I don't mind subtext, in that the "supplicant" is being invited to suit himself by a speaker who is willing to be (slightly?) inconvenienced if it comes to that. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 16:35
@FumbleFingers: I agree, and what I'm saying is that it's an idiom — the "I don't mind" meaning is not directly comprehensible from its literal meaning. Someone who thinks that the meaning of the phrase is obvious from the meanings of the words is probably working with an extended meaning for guest. (This is what the OP means by asking the question AFAICT: when he says "for me, it looks really weird", I take it to mean "I don't see where this meaning comes from".) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 16 '11 at 16:56
@ShreevatsaR: No question but that it's an idiom. Like you, I consider an idiom to be an expression where you can't reliably figure out the meaning from the literal meaning of the words. If you could, OED probably wouldn't bother to define it anyway. btw - I think if it weren't for that I don't mind implication, I'd say it conveys the same meaning as Suit yourself. But in that one I think often the subtext is Whether I mind or not, I can see you're going to do what you want and ignore my position, so let's not discuss it any more. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 20:37

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The phrase was popularized by hotelmen like Conrad Hilton in the late 1950s. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Hilton

In this context, it meant, "make yourself at home."

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