Tak! Takk! Tack! These words are not just random sounds spelled differently. They are actual words in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. In Germanic languages the spelling changes from one language to the next, but the meaning remains the same: Thank you!
English, German, and Dutch are also Germanic languages with a way of saying thank you that is very similar: thanks, danke, bedankt!
But what exactly are we saying when we say thanks! What are we saying when we “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Ps. 107:1)?* Is there anything we can learn from the etymology of that common word to enrich our understanding of what we actually do when we “give thanks to the Lord”?
A Closer Look
The word “thanks” comes from the word “think.” In German, danke comes from the word denken, which, you guessed it, means the same as the English “think.”
But why are the two words related? Because when the word thanks/danke was adopted in the common language, around A.D. 1000, it was implied that someone expressed good thoughts toward someone who did someone else a favor.
The apostle Paul wrote to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). Paul enjoined us to have good thoughts about God in all circumstances, even when the devil tempts us to curse God, as Job’s wife did when his family was beset by calamities (see Job 2:9).
English is a relatively recent language. It was only around A.D. 1400 that the expression “thank you” became common to express gratitude! So what do the words “thank you” convey in languages older than English?
The French say merci, which comes from Latin mercedem, meaning “reward” or “wage.” French speakers don’t just have good thoughts; they are actually willing to reward the good deed. Saying merci expresses the willingness to pay back. The rewards or wages back in Roman days came in the form of wares that were called merx, from which we have the words “merchant” and “merchandise.” So saying merci was often accompanied with a little gift. How often do we think of thanking God by bringing Him a gift, or “gifting” someone in need as a way to thank God?
In Spanish thank you is gracias; and in Italian it is grazie. These words have a rich background. They come from Latin gratia, meaning “esteem,” “obligation,” “thanks.” From the word gratia we derive the word “gratitude.” More important for our understanding, gratia is the root of the words “grace,” “gracious,” and “gratis,” meaning free. So while those who speak German and English think good thoughts, and those who speak French return gifts, Spanish and Italian speakers allude to something that is free and unmerited, which in turn elicits gratitude.
In fact, in Italian the verb to thank is ringraziare, literally, “to render grace,” or return the grace that has been bestowed. Should not Christians do the same thing? As we have been shown grace in the form of forgiveness, the best way to thank God is to return grace and forgiveness to those who have offended us!
Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
In ancient Greek, which preceded Latin, thank you is eucharisto, from which we have the word “Eucharist,” which designates the Communion service in the Catholic Church. Seventh-day Adventists don’t often use this word, but we are indeed invited to the Lord’s table to share in the emblems of His blood and body in a spirit of thanksgiving. The apostle Paul tells us that “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it” (1 Cor. 11:23).
We are to give thanks for the sacrifice that gives us life. Taking the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner” is to partake of the Communion service in a spirit of indifference, or worse, a spirit of rebellion instead of gratitude. The Greek word eucharisto is also related to the word charisma, or “gift,” from which we have the word “charismatic,” “gifted,” and also “charming.”
With this understanding, the words of the apostle John take on added meaning: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus’ grace and truth can also be understood as Jesus’ charm and truth, that winsome quality that comes from an individual who extends true friendship and forgiveness to people who don’t deserve them. Who thinks of Jesus as “charming”?
A Little Goes a Long Way
Depending on the language and the culture, there is more to the phrase “thank you.”
In Arabic gratitude is expressed with the expression Barak Allahu Feek, “may Allah bless you.” Blessings from God are the greatest gift one can wish for someone who has done you a favor. The more casual Arabic expression for thank you is shukran. It has its roots in Ugaritic (from the fourteenth to twelfth century B.C.), the precursor to such Semitic languages as Arabic and Hebrew. The Ugaritic word shkr is “to let out on hire,” “to reward for work done.” This word has three consonants: sh, k, r. These consonants led to sheker in Arabic, which is the root to the word sucre in French, zucker in German, and sugar in English.
When I was in Turkey I learned that when the Turks say thank you, they use an expression derived from Arabic. They say te?hekkür ederim, which literally means “I return sweets to you”! Once you know that meaning, you never forget it. Semitic languages literally have a sweet way of saying thank you. But no language puts it better than Indonesian.
On a trip to Indonesia I was told that thank you is terima kasi. While easier to remember than the Turkish te?hekkür ederim, it’s not quite as simple as “Thanks!” Yet I managed.
On Sabbath morning I heard the preacher repeatedly use the word kasi, kasi, kasi. I asked for its meaning. My host responded: “It means love.” I stored that bit of information away until I saw a big roadside poster with the word terima. Again, I asked its meaning and was told: “It means to return.” I was stunned.
I turned to my host and said: “So when you say ‘Thank you,’ you’re actually saying: ‘I return love to you’?”
It was his turn to be dumbfounded. He replied: “You’re right, actually; I’d never thought of it before!”
Thanks, merci, gracias, shukran, terima kasi! There is so much meaning in that simple word. If only our expression of gratitude to God could indeed capture the meaning of the word fully. We would truly make it an act of worship.
Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Claude Richli is associate publisher and marketing director for Adventist Review and Adventist World, and is fluent in several languages. The article, posted on November 11, 2010, was adapted from a presentation he recently made at staff worship.