Happy to meet, sorry to part: the ritual of good-bye

Published Nov. 17, 2003
“It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
“Good afternoon,” as uttered by Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” was not a friendly greeting at the meeting of friends; it was an adamant goodbye, with an unspoken, underlying meaning: Go away, leave me be.
Goodbye and its sundry variants are oft-repeated words bearing great significance and laden with layers of meaning. When people say goodbye, they are often promising to reunite later, or they are wishing each other good health and safe travels. Those meanings are revealed in goodbye’s many variations: “See ya later” and “catch ya later” are our casual generation’s versions of the French “au revoir,” “Spanish hasta la vista” and German “auf Wiedersehen,” which mean literally “at the next viewing”; and “demain” and “mañana” are French and Spanish, respectively, for “see you tomorrow.”
“Take it easy” is the 1960s way of wishing someone good health and safe travel and has lately been replaced by “take care,” which seems to be more politically correct. These have supplanted farewell, the meaning of which becomes clear if separated into its components: Fare well is the shortened edition of “fare you well” or “fare ye well.” The earlier sense of fare was to go, so saying farewell was wishing a person a safe journey.
Goodbye is a contraction of “God be with you” and has counterparts in adieu, adios, vaya con Dios, Godspeed (also the name of one of the ships that reached Jamestown in 1607), good luck, good morning, good day, good afternoon, good evening, good night, bonjour, buon giorno, bonne nuit, buenos das, guten nacht and bon voyage. Wishing someone goodbye is a spoken prayer.
Our abbreviation-happy society has further abridged goodbye to bye, but one syllable seems abrupt when wishing someone good health and divine protection. So when a word as important as goodbye gets shortened to one syllable, people sense, maybe not consciously, that more is needed, and they add other syllables, but in a casual framework to complement T-shirts and sweat pants. Words have ritualistic importance and creative power, and the ritual seems to demand more than one diminutive syllable, and bye has become the elongated by-ye and bye-bye.
Noble manners and courtesy have fallen away one by one, but their essence remains. The irony is that important greetings, people’s names and place names are shortened while unnecessary prepositions and jargon choke the life out of language. Massachusetts becomes Mass, and people become initials, while bureaucrats mystify us with paradigm-empowering parameter-prioritizing specifications and other obliquities. Goodbye and its companions seem to be disappearing, unwatched, unwept, uncared for.
An entire song about the ritual of goodbye was performed in The Sound Of Music. The children bade guests good night in So Long, Farewell, using seven forms of goodbye in three languages. The Irish jig “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part” describes hello and goodbye in 6/8 time, and the Scottish tune “Sitting In the Stern of a Boat” is a slow lamentation written by the Rev. William McLeod when he was leaving his home on the Isle of Skye to take charge of a parish in Argyllshire on the mainland. Farewell is communicated in the tune’s melancholy rather than in words.

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