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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

thanks for sharing

(2000’s | therapese | “keep it to yourself,” “I didn’t need to hear that”)

Two things happened to this phrase in the 1990’s, as far as I can tell. One had to do with the wording: from a mass of similar phrases that usually involved direct and possibly indirect objects (“thank you for sharing your story with us”) evolved a simpler phrase shorn of both. Another had to do with the hijacking of the phrase, previously almost always used sincerely, into sarcasm. “Thanks for sharing” took on shades of meaning anywhere from “I wish you hadn’t told me that” to “shut up.” It was flip and hip, tossed around by sportswriters and human interest columnists. The New York Times language column (August 1, 1993) cited the phrase and even a companion abbreviation: “T.F.S. — thanks for sharing — derives from the closing line of Narcotics Anonymous and other recovery-movement meetings. Now it’s heard in casual, even sarcastic comment on, for instance, flatulence in the family station wagon.” The phrase does seem to be tossed around a lot among members of NA, but I haven’t been able to verify that is generally used as a benediction. Regardless, it seems pretty clear that the expression derives from therapese. The literature as I read it suggests that “thank you for sharing your story” or “thanks for sharing that” was simply an outgrowth of the older therapese use of “to share” to mean “tell” or “communicate.” That usage was generally accepted, if decried in some quarters, by my childhood, certainly by my adolescence. The ironic use came later, strictly a reaction to an established formula.

There’s no doubt that “share” used this way has annoyed a lot of people over the years, some of whom knew whereof they spoke. Here’s an early salvo from Francine Prose (the Times again, May 9, 1985): “‘Sharing,’ for example, is a word that, properly used, connotes the material (one might, conceivably, share a sandwich) or the nursery school (Jimmy is learning to share with the other children) but not the heart’s deepest recesses. Yet nowadays, the word is frequently used to describe the imparting of information that any sane person would probably rather not hear.” It usually denotes talk of oneself — specifically of matters normally considered private in polite company. Which is why the phrase can be used as an emergency stopgap, as when someone you don’t know well reveals something unpleasant about themselves. If you’re at a loss for words, you can always press “thanks for sharing” into service.

While most auditors would grasp an ironic use of the phrase quickly, such use has never become predominant. It is perfectly possible to say “thanks for sharing” with utter sincerity. It seems to be quite ordinary on Twitter, where, to my limited knowledge, it is often used without the least taint of snideness.

It strikes me as noteworthy that this phrase seems to refer only to the therapese sort of sharing, and never the other kinds that Prose alluded to above. It would sound odd, or humorous, to say “thanks for sharing” when someone gives you half of their sandwich or lets you borrow the car for the evening. Sometimes you’ll see newspaper editorials thanking donors for spreading largesse around holiday charities at Christmastime; Macy’s “Thanks for Sharing” program devotes a percentage of customer spending to funding charitable enterprises. But in everyday speech, whether used sarcastically or not, it’s almost always a response to a statement rather than an action.

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