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Yours sincerely . . .

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NAPOLEON III - Autograph Letter Signed 1864 to Baron HaussmannA discussion with a teacher of English one day - before the lockdown - made me reflect on the way people have finished their letters through the ages.

He said that, while explaining the niceties of when one should use "Yours faithfully" as opposed to "Yours sincerely", his students were surprised.  Their reaction was simply "but don't you just always use "Kind regards"?"

When I was at school, I was taught that when addressing "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" one should use "Yours faithfully", but "Dear Mr. Smith" or "Dear Elizabeth" called for "Yours sincerely".  That's probably still a good rule for letters, but either of those would seem rather odd at the end of an email - and this has entirely changed the way we correspond.  Personally, I usually go for "Best wishes" or "All best wishes" or even "With very best wishes" at the end of my emails, depending very much on my mood.  But letters - those things written on paper, often headed paper, which you put in an envelope, stick a stamp on it and pop into the letterbox - they call for something more formal, so it's back to "Yours faithfully" and "Yours sincerely".

Of course this sort of thing has changed enormously down the ages, and depends on the country and language, not to mention the status of the writer relative to the recipient.  A few hundred years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see the closing "Your humble and obedient servant" from someone who was most certainly neither humble nor obedient, but when writing to someone of higher status politeness was important.

Writing to the Elector of Cologne in 1701, in French, William III signed off with "Votre tres affectione frere", as rulers always would call each other brother regardless of their distant, if any, familial relation. George III soometimes did much the same thing, but in Latin and an additional flourish, "Bonus Frater Consangiuneus et Amicus".

Around the time of the Consulate in France, one finds many letters ending with the patriotic and unimpeachably revolutionary "Salut et fraternité", or sometimes "Salut et respect". As Emperor, Napoleon frequently used "sur ce je prie Dieu qu'il vous ait en sa sainte garde" - a noble sentiment but possibly rather diminished when one remembers that Napoleon wasn't really terribly religious. But it was a phrase which was used elsewhere, as when his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, wrote to the Emperor with a report on Italian bishops. Writing to General Oudinot, Massena sent him "l'expression de ma sincère amitié". You could trust them to always use an elegant turn of phrase.

By the mid-nineteenth century, writers seem to have opted for variations on "Yours truly", which I think may have gone entirely out of fashion today.  It ranged from Thackeray's "Always yours most truly" to Stevenson's "Yours very truly" and then Harriet Martineau's more affectionate "Believe me, dear Lady Walsham, very truly yours".

In France, Napoleon III was positively informal in his friendliness towards Baron Haussmann when he ended a missive to him with the words "Croyez à mon amitié".

By the twentieth century, things settle into the "Yours faithfully" or "Yours sincerely" formula.  Evelyn Waugh settled for "Yours sincerely" while Edith Sitwell added more warmth with "Yours very sincerely"; Arnold Lawrence, Augustus John and David Lloyd George all used "Yours sincerely" while there's a Virginia Woolf letter, obviously finished in a rush, which simply ends which a scrawled "Yrs".

Where will the twenty-first century take us?  I'm not at all sure.  But I can promise that, as long as it is spelled correctly and not positively rude, I will accept whatever new form of closing the century brings. Though I do still really like "Salut et fraternité". 

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