I came across the phrase "That's a mercy!" in a textbook dialogue. To put it in context I've reproduced the whole dialogue as below:

Bobbie: You look like hell, dad. What's on?

Sam: Nothing special. You snored a lot last night, and I thought it was a thunder so I closed the windows one by one. Then you began grinding your teeth from midnight.

Bobbie: And you thought a mouse was coming into the kitchen and watched out the whole night?

Sam: That's a mercy!

The whole dialogue makes sense as some sort of family teasing. It's just Sam's reply in the end "That's a mercy" which stands out a bit for me. What does this mean? Is this some kind of quick repartee? In what context do we normally use it?

The textbook has a slant of American English, to put in context.

  • The term is not especially familiar to me in the US. I think I've heard it once or twice, so it could be, eg, a Southern US thing, but the rest of the dialog is not indicative of a specific dialect. "What's on" is also unfamiliar.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 1 '15 at 11:29
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    What sort of textbook is this? Can you supply the name of it? Certain things lead me to suspect it's not written by a native speaker of English. E.g., "What's on?" is strange; a native speaker would say "What's up?" or "What's going on?" "I thought it was a thunder"; a native speaker would say "I thought it was thunder." "You began grinding your teeth from midnight"; a native speaker would use at instead of from, most likely. "Watched out the whole night" is just weird.
    – Robusto
    Aug 1 '15 at 11:35
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    What @Robusto said. I do not believe for one moment that the text was written by a native speaker. Aug 1 '15 at 12:19
  • Also, "I closed the windows one by one" is oddly specific, as if to forestall some expectation by the listener that the speaker would have tried to close the windows all at the same time. Each of these things by itself could be shrugged off, but taken together the picture emerges of a (probably) Chinese speaker affecting to write English.
    – Robusto
    Aug 1 '15 at 12:19
  • Well. Throw it away. Replace it with a book by American authors trying to help with teaching Russians Chinese. You will have way more fun with that one. That's a lifelong guarantee.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 5 '15 at 12:36

"That's a mercy" means approximately "Well, that at least is something to be grateful for"; it expresses satisfaction or, more often, relief upon perceiving some redeeming positive feature in an otherwise distressing situation. I'd guess that it originated in pious circles—we may presume that the "mercy" involved is God's mercy in sparing us a worse outcome—but it long since lost any explicit religious reference.

It is not an exclusively American expression; Joost Kiefte gives you an example from Shaw, and Google will show you examples from Wodehouse and Dickens. It's quite old-fashioned now, but not yet defunct. Here's a recent example from a public radio station in upstate New York:

[G]roundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to ground squirrels out west, but in the northeast they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

I can see no reason for its use in the passage you give. Like Robusto, I'm pretty sure the passage was written by someone with an imperfect understanding of English.

  • Thanks for your response. Now let me practise using "That's a mercy" in another scenario, please correct me if I'm wrong --- Let's say my more appropriateboss asked me to stay late for work today, and to make up for it, he gave me a hot meal for dinner and a taxi voucher to get home safely after work. I then whispered to myself (or to my colleague if one happens to come by) "Well, that's a mercy!", in a sarcastic tone I would say.---- Now how's that sound?
    – Daisy Yang
    Aug 5 '15 at 13:04
  • @DaisyYang Sounds pretty good to me. Bear in mind that the phrase doesn't have to be used sarcastically. Aug 5 '15 at 13:27

The idiom features in a dialogue between Eliza Doolittle and Freddy Eynsford-Hill in G.B. Shaw's play Pygmalion, later reworked into the more famous musical comedy My Fair Lady, meaning something like "Thank God" or "I'm pleased to hear".

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    Yes, but that doesn't really explain what it's doing in the textbook in that context. The use of, "What's on?" instead of "What's up?" makes me susect this was written by a non-native. Aug 1 '15 at 11:07
  • Perhaps an American turn of phrase you wouldn't be familiar with? Aug 1 '15 at 11:17
  • Sam might be suffering from murophobia. Aug 1 '15 at 11:20
  • @JoostKiefte No, this is definitely not colloquial American speech. Aug 1 '15 at 11:42
  • That is a very pertinent answer, Stoney.... Aug 1 '15 at 12:20

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