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I'm watching the series Boardwalk Empire, a period drama set in the early 1920s, and an odd thing I notice is that people often do not say "thanks" or "thank you" when I'd expect them to–for example, when one character hands another a cigarette or pours them a drink, "thanks" is almost never offered in return.

Is this just a quirk of the characters, many of whom are gangsters, perhaps a quirk of the writing style, or might it be historically accurate? I'm wondering if such everyday expressions of gratitude might not always have been as common as they are in modern English.

  • I remember TV shows set in the Old West (of the US) where the characters would say "Much obliged" and not "Thanks". – GEdgar Jun 9 '18 at 17:31
  • Perhaps it's to save time, like how TV characters will often unceremoniously cut off a phone call as soon as they have the information they need. – Anton Sherwood Nov 11 '19 at 16:58
  • …On the other hand, I once saw a columnist in 198x musing with some distaste on how often one hears empty ritualistic thanks these days. – Anton Sherwood Nov 25 '19 at 18:28
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Google's ngram viewer is helpful for beginning research on these types of questions.

frequency of thankful messages over 300 years from Google's book corpus

The frequency has changed little in 100 years, so increased usage is not the cause. From ngrams, you can go on to book content searches for the time period of interest to study how it is used. There, we find sample usage such as this passage from Mark Twain:

Halliday's voice. “Fifteen I'm bid!—fifteen for the sack!—twenty!—ah, thanks!—thirty—thanks again! Thirty, thirty, thirty!—do I hear forty?—forty it is! Keep the ball rolling, gentlemen, keep it rolling!—fifty!—thanks, noble Roman!—going at fifty, fifty, fifty!—seventy!—ninety!—splendid!—a hundred!—pile it up, pile it up!—hundred and twenty—forty!—just in time!—hundred and fifty!—Two hundred!—superb! Do I hear two h—thanks!—two hundred and fifty!—“

Another example from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Gwendolen. Good! Algy, you may turn round now.

Algernon. Thanks, I’ve turned round already.

From these examples, we see there isn't a change in how "thanks" is used. Without digging more, I couldn't say whether to the lack in Boardwalk is attributable to writing style or gangster mannerisms. Hardboiled pulp fiction will show how such characters and their speech were romanticized at the time.

  • I'm currently searching 1700 to 1800 books for "thanks", and not one occurrence (so far) has been in the context of saying "Thanks". They are almost all on the lines of "they gave thanks to the Lord" or "they gave a Vote of Thanks to Viscount Whatsisname". EDIT: Almost immediately I found one, allegedly from 1789. I'll double-check. – Phil M Jones Jun 12 '18 at 10:06

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