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Dear Matt:

Why do letters to complete strangers commonly begin with a seemingly intimate term of endearment like "dear"? Are there other terms in current use in the English language for written salutations? Do other written languages parallel this claim of an equal level of closeness to loved ones and strangers alike? Sincerely (isn't "sincerely" a bit over the top for casual letters as well?)

-- Curt, the net

And I am truly the Compleat Stranger, Curt. If I'm not "dear" and you're not "sincere," well, work on it. But in fact, this question is almost irrelevant. These days, what with faxes and e-mail, receiving a formal business letter on high-credibility stationery is as surprising as receiving a stone tablet in your mailbox. Basically, a business letter is just information cloaked in ceremony, niceties, obligations, all kinds of polite nonsense. Do you think the Renaissance huckster who began his letters, "Right worshipful sir" or "Worthy cousin" or "Sir, may it please your mastership" meant any of that stuff? Back in those days, all business writing followed what was known as the ars dictaminis, rules for writing commercial or legal documents. In business letters, it called for some form of address (e.g., "Worshipful master"); salutation ("I greet you well"); notification ("May it please you to know"); exposition ("the wool was shipped"); disposition ("and I want my money"); and valediction ("May God keep you well, at least until after my bill is paid"). Clerks and scribes wrote the letters based on those rules. The general format's still used today, but then as now, nobody paid much attention to the real meaning of the opening and closing kiss-ups. A letter to a Spanish king was signed, "Your sacred Majesty's faithful servant who kisses your imperial feet...." How does "Sincerely" look after that?

Business letters became the rule rather than the exception sometime in the 18th Century, when the world was getting too big to do business face-to-face. That's when books on business-letter writing began to be published. They were filled with hints and rules and even boilerplate, so all you had to do was plug in your information. In general, they advised against flowery language, but in the address and valediction, that didn't really change until after the Victorian age. "Your obedient servant" was a pretty common closing in the 19th Century.

The remnants of the ars dictaminis that we're left with today are "Dear" and "Yours truly," pretty lame by comparison, but they're just formalities, not words fraught with meaning. We may have casual Fridays, but that doesn't mean that all hell has broken loose in the smiley, hand-shakey world of contemporary business. You can't very well write a letter that starts out, "Listen, you cube-dwelling weasel that I wouldn't trust with anything and will crush like a bug..." or end it with "I spit on you and your children and your children's children..." even if that's what you mean. From what I understand, the Japanese are the contemporary champs at the business letter grovel. It's traditional to open with something like "If you will permit it, we address you with all reverence and respect..." then go on about how you should be congratulated at your business acumen and for making your company so profitable. French, German, and Spanish salutations tend toward the respectful: "Esteemed" or "Honorable" or "Respected," rather than "Dear." But faxes and e-mail are even making these anachronistic. Soon we'll be reduced to those miserable little emoticons (:-D), and I'm not sure that's progress.

I laugh in your face and kick your dog, M. Alice

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