The Culture In a Word In a Word

From one word lover to another

I never met Ruth Walker in person, but I felt I got to know her.

Ruth Walker, 'Verbal Energy' author
John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor
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  • Melissa Mohr

I never met Ruth Walker in person, but I feel as though I got to know her a little in reading her “Verbal Energy” columns. I can imagine her sitting at her desk, a cup of tea or hot chocolate close at hand, thinking about which words she was going to investigate next. Her pieces were interesting, erudite but never lecturing, and also comforting – a bit of a strange adjective to describe a language column – in a way I can’t quite explain. 

So, in honor of Ruth, from one word lover to another, I thought we would look at ways to say goodbye.

Goodbye itself comes from the late 16th century. In this era, people openly acknowledged the uncertainty and unpredictability of life. Perfectly healthy people would write “God willing (if I live another summer), I will come” when they made plans to visit each other, and words for leave-taking recognized and hedged against this fragility. 

Goodbye is thus a shortened form of “[May] God be with you” and was only one of numerous similar options – God save you; God buy (“redeem”) you – people used to wish each other good luck and good health when parting. By the 18th century, the God save yous had dropped out of the picture and goodbye had also lost its religious overtones. It became, along with its short form, bye!, our default parting word.

There is no default way to spell goodbye, however. The Oxford English Dictionary goes with goodbye. Merriam-Webster adds good-bye, goodby, and good-by as options. The Chicago Manual of Style is more rigid and insists on the “e” and the hyphen. 

What about goodbyes to those who have died? People sometimes seek to memorialize beloved friends and family members through elegies and eulogies, which are easily confused. Elegies were originally poems of sorrow for the dead, written according to very strict metrical rules. The most famous English example is probably Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). 

While an elegy focuses on feelings of sadness, a eulogy is all about praise, celebrating the life of the departed and his or her character and achievements. The word now more loosely refers to any sort of high praise.

In that spirit, I offer this column as a type of gentle eulogy. 

Goodbye, Ruth, and God save you. You are missed.

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