Long before bombs started falling on Iraq two weeks ago, and even well before the attacks on Sept. 11, a subtle shift began taking place in everyday language, suggesting a mood of caution.
Instead of ending conversations with the usual "Bye" or "See you soon" or even "Have a good day" - the verbal equivalent of a smiley face - some people began signing off by saying "Take care." Gradually, others upgraded that farewell to a more serious "Be safe." Now even TV anchors use the two phrases as they end interviews with reporters in Iraq.
There is something rather touching about these solicitous wishes floating through the air, however perfunctory they might sound. In some circles, they represent little more than the latest fad-speak. In others, they reflect the somber mood of the times. "Take care" can be interpreted as either "Take care of yourself" or as a veiled way of saying "Be careful."
Cautionary sentiments are hardly new, of course. Whenever members of my father's family traveled even short distances, his German grandmother would say affectionately, "Come home safe."
Such solicitude has its charms. But however well-intentioned, it can also have its limits and produce its petty annoyances.
A friend who has traveled alone many times to remote corners of Nepal, Bhutan, and India booked a trip in January to Burma (also known as Myanmar). But vague fears of terrorism, combined with looming war clouds in the US, prompted a few friends to express concern. She weighed the trip carefully and decided the pros outweighed the cons. She knows how to temper a spirit of adventure with common sense.
Before she left, I dashed off an e-mail, wishing her bon voyage. She replied in a slightly exasperated tone: "Always before I leave on one of these journeys, there are those who tell me to be safe, safe, safe. Only a few - you, my mother, other wanderlusters - are supportive of the spirit of curiosity and adventure. I appreciate that."
When she returned, she sent an exuberant e-mail, saying, "My Burmese adventure was better than I even hoped - a lovely young guide, hikes to tribal areas, a sweet church in Mandalay, conversations with painters in their galleries, and so on. The quality of light is similar to that in our Southwest, and the intensity of color made me want to dive into it."
What a loss it would have been for her, as an author who often turns her travels into books and essays, if she had canceled out. And what an inspiration her can-do spirit is for others at a time when many would-be vacationers are staying home, even when their proposed destinations appear safe.
Even without terrorist attacks and war, this has become the Age of Caution. Parents diligently babyproof every inch of the house, walk children to school, and worry about the safety of playgrounds.
Restaurant patrons shun tap water and pay $3.50 for a bottle of water from a mountain spring in Europe. And a Boston hairdresser now bids her clients goodbye with the admonition, "Stay healthy."
I once read about a mother who wanted to teach her children to be careful without creating a sense of fear. Instead of saying "Watch out!" as they prepared to cross the street, she simply said quietly, "Watch." What a useful, nonalarmist word, even if it doesn't quite work as a parting wish in the same way that "Take care" does.
Someday, in less somber times, the carefree old phrases, such as "Bye" and "See you," may come back. For now, the more solicitous wishes continue to be appropriate, nowhere more so than when we bestow them on the men and women stationed in Iraq. To them we say: Be safe. Take care. Stay healthy, and above all, Come home safe.