Salutations!

My name is Shmuel, and I'll be your guest blogger. I'd like to thank Jed for inviting me to come and play. I'm flattered, and excited, and terribly uncertain of what I'll be writing about. But let's start with "salutations."

It occurred to me, as I was casting around for ideas, that the use of "salutations" as a salutation is a bit strange. "Hello" is a salutation. "Dear Sir or Madam" is a salutation. "Salutations" itself seems more like a placeholder, as if one were saying "[insert salutation here]." The same would seem to go for "greetings," for that matter.

(You may be thinking of E.B. White right now. In my experience, "Salutations!" is practically code for "I loved Charlotte's Web as a kid and I still love both language and whimsy." That's likely a skewed sample, however; the kind of people I hang out with tend to be those who love Charlotte's Web, language, and whimsy, no matter what greetings they choose.)

My first thought was that "salutations" might be functioning as a clipped form of a longer phrase, perhaps "I offer you salutations!" An initial check in the unabridged dictionaries I had onhand (notably Merriam-Webster's 2nd and 3rd ed., American Heritage 4th ed., Random House 2nd ed.) found no trace of "salutations" itself being used as a salutation. Furthermore, Random House was the only one to include "greetings" in anything like the sense at hand: "3. greetings, an expression of friendly or respectful regard: send my greetings to your family." This strikes me as not quite the same sense as "Greetings!" but it's in the right ballpark.

Ultimately, I pulled out the big guns: the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED confirmed my original thought, and showed that this construction goes back a long way. Definition 2 for "salutation" is "Elliptically for 'I offer salutation'," though this is flagged as being archaic. The earliest citation is from 1535: "Vnto Eszdras..peace and salutacion." The year 1600 brings a familiar form, almost: "Salutation and greeting to you all." In the singular form, found in these examples, the usage is indeed archaic. The plural form is not, but the OED doesn't mention that at all.

Two things strike me as interesting in all of this. The first is the elliptical form of "salutations" itself, which strikes me as unusual. After all, one doesn't say "Valedictions!" when leaving. Can you think of other examples of such a usage?

The second is that a usage as common as "Greetings!" or "Salutations!" can apparently be taken for granted to the extent that major dictionaries don't bother to note it at all. For that matter, even though the usage has changed from singular to plural—nobody these days would say "Greeting!" or "Salutation!"—only Random House includes the specifically plural form, and that only for "greetings." It's rare that I find a blind spot like this. And kind of cool.

I'm not sure all of this adds up to anything, but there you have it. Salutations!