“Cheers,” Again

This is an interjection with a history, and a fair amount of complexity. It started as the nautical affirmative “Cheer ho!”, said in response to “What cheer, ho?” The variants cheeroh and cheero then became used as “a friendly greeting or a call to attract attention” (OED) and subsequently to express good wishes on parting, to express encouragement (“take heart!”), and as a toast or salutation on drinking. A bit of doggerel composed in 1919 by the American philologist Charles Alphonso Smith commented on the term’s all-purpose nature: “The British have a funny word—Cheer-O!.. They said it when we joined the fleet, They say it now when e’er we meet, Till smilingly we all repeat, Cheer-O.”

A third variant, cheerio, surpassed cheero in 1916 (according to Ngram Viewer) and became, along with old chap, one of main words the American caricature of an Englishman habitually said. The idea had been established by 1941, when Judy Garland encouraged a besieged Britain with the song “Chin Up! Cheerio! Carry On!”, lyrics by Yip Harburg, in the movie Babes on Broadway. The same year, General Mills introduced a breakfast cereal called Cheerioats. In 1946, faced with a legal challenge by the Quaker Oats, they changed the name to Cheerios.

Cheero and cheerio begat cheers, which took on all the old meanings. My experience tells me that the only one adopted in the United States was the drinking toast, which has been widespread here for as long as I can remember and served as the title of the NBC sitcom, set in a bar of the same name, which starred Ted Danson.

Meanwhile, over in the U.K., the word took on yet another sense. As Philip Howard wrote in The Times in 1976: “By a remarkable transition from the pub to the sober world at large outside cheers has become the colloquial synonym in British English for ‘thanks.’” In his 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, Kingsley Amis described a news agent saying “Cheers five times, the first time when he noticed the approach of his customer, again when he handed the magazines, again when he took money, again when he gave change and the last time when bidden good-bye.”

Flash forward twenty years, to when I started spending a good amount of time in London. I was struck precisely by a newsagent’s “Cheers” when I handed over payment for my Independent  or Evening Standard. And over the next few years, as I paid attention, it seemed to me that “thank you” was indeed the preeminent meaning for the word.

Not long after that, the word exploded for a simple reason: email, where “Cheers” became immensely popular as a sign-off, first in the U.K. and then in the U.S. But here’s the odd thing: I believe that over there, it more or less means “thanks,” while in here, it more or less means “good tidings” or “all the best wishes” or something vague and positive along those lines. I acknowledge that, short of interviewing people who use the sign-off, I can’t prove or disprove my proposition. So I’m hoping readers will help me out. Those who sign off with “Cheers,” what do you mean by it?

42 thoughts on ““Cheers,” Again

  1. I’m a 52yo Brit and can affirm that, in my experience, “cheers” is predominantly used as a friendly and relaxed alternative to “thanks”. I would say “Cheerio” is much more likely to be used as a farewell than “cheers”, although I also have a hunch that “cheerio” is perhaps seen by younger people as being a touch outdated.

    I rarely sign off e-mails with “cheers” and would only ever do so when corresponding with a friend or close colleague. As for what I mean when I do use it as a parting salutation, I think it’s just a much less informal alternative to “Best regards” – or, as you put it, ‘“good tidings” or “all the best wishes” or something vague and positive along those lines’.

    Then again, I might use it to mean something like “thanks in advance” when signing off an e-mail that was requesting something of the recipient.

    1. @JohnGuthrie1949: yes, as I already explained to a previous commenter, it was a mistake on my part. Error somewhere between brain and fingers!

      1. @JohnGuthrie1949: in my mind, “less formal” and “more informal” are semantically equivalent.

      2. Excuse my obsessive pedantry. In order to have ‘less formal’, you must have ‘formal’; in order to have ‘more informal’, you must have ‘informal’.
        When the weather is cold and the temperature rises slightly, people say that it’s warmer; but it should be ‘less cold’. Thinking back to our early school lessons, the correct sequence would be warm, warmer, warmest; and so on.
        Just another reason for my having no friends. 😀

      3. @JohnGuthrie1949: unfortunately for pedants (among whose number many would count me), what people should and/or must do often bears little relation to what they actually do 🙂

  2. I am british and usevit to mean ‘best wishes’ at the end of an email. Less formal than ‘regards’.

  3. I’m a fan of “Cheers, drive!” said as one leaves a bus as a way of thanking the bus-driver, associated with Bristol in south-west England.

  4. Ben, once again I appreciate the column’s logo-genealogy. For some years, I’ve fallen into the Cheers-as-sign-off camp. I like its cheeriness. And as a lifelong anglophile with twerpy tendencies, the signoff always reminds of a British friend’s familiar “Cheery bye!”

    Thanks for your dispatches, and stay well.


  5. In the UK in the 1980s and ‘90s I used ‘Cheers’ routinely in speech and writing instead of ‘Thank you’. It was fashionable and ‘Thanks,’ I think, was a bit more middle-aged a phrase than I wanted to be associated with.
    Now that I have become middle aged, I use ‘Thank you’ or ‘Thanks’.
    On the odd occasion, when I am signing an email to a close friend or family member and want to be informal, I will use ‘Cheers’ but always with the meaning ‘Thanks’.

  6. After my family moved down from near Manchester to Bristol, in 1964, my Dad used to make lightly disparaging comments when I said ‘cheers’ in response to receiving a drink. It seemed to be another odd Bristolian things, like ‘babby’, m’dear, and so on. There used to be so many regional variations of greetings. Sometimes, these would be borrowed, such as the Scottish one before a drink of whisky.
    Even after all this time, I still greet people with ‘ ‘ow do’. But in my drinking days, I’d generally say ‘Thank you,’ in a pub; but when clinking glasses at Christmas, we adapted to ‘cheers’.

  7. Ben

    Cheers as an email sign-off, as a 53yo male Brit I use it as an informal version of best regards. Could be thanks there as well, but doesn’t have to be.



    1. There I was thinking that “Best regards” was an informal version of “Yours sincerely”, itself an informal version of the sign-off when writing to one’s new commanding officer in the Army “Sir, I have the honour to be your obedient servant”.

  8. I tried using “cheers” for a while as a sign off while at school in Canada. It worked OK there, but when I returned to the US, I became self-conscious that it made me look like an alcoholic, due to its association with drinking.
    Literary/historical note: English author PG Wodehouse, writing in the early 20th-century, used “cheerio” as a greeting among upper-class British twits, generally of the younger generation. I suspect this predates its use by Americans to make fun of Brits generally.

    1. I remember Fred Streeter, a gardening expert who used to give gardening tips on BBC radio on Saturday mornings in the early seventies (by which time he was in his nineties). Definitely not upper class; his father was a farm labourer. The segment each week involved him talking to someone called Frank, and he’d finish each week with, “Cheerio Frank, cheerio everybody.)

  9. Hello, As an American who occasionally uses “cheers” as an email sign off, I associate it with the “all good tidings” -type of meaning. I have never really thought about it meaning thanks but from your descriptions of how it is used in the UK it would seem to make sense that that is their meaning. Either way, I like it!

  10. I rarely use “Cheers” as a signoff. For years I used, “T’Care,” but now, it’s varied, if any.

    In the late ’40s, my mother or father would take me to a nearby movie theater to see a movie, close enough for a toddler my age to walk there. There was a store on the way where they’d alternately take me for an ice cream treat. One time my grandmother took me for a walk in that direction. When we got to the store, she asked me if I wanted cheerios, or a cheerio (which however she said it is how I heard it). I thought she meant https://i.etsystatic.com/5232234/r/il/4117d1/3983391359/il_1588xN.3983391359_10y8.jpg but sadly (for me) she meant the cereal. I declined.

  11. The wonderful thing about cheers is the sheer Swiss Army Knife nature of the word. Native Britons instinctively know the intended meaning thanks to the magic of context.

  12. When I sign off with “Cheers’, it means “this email has ended”. I usually sign off with ‘Thanks’, which will probably be the third time the word was used in the email. It also means “People write things at the end of emails just before their name and this is that thing.”

    1. Aye, decrepit old Brit here. Context is everything. In speech I use it to mean good health (if I have a glass of booze in my hand) or thanks in other circumstances. In e-mail I use it to mean, “This is e-mail is now at an end and while I don’t actively hate you, I do not know you well enough to be more effusive in wishing you well”

      Lurk. 🙂

  13. It should be illegal for Americans to use it. Damn epidemic of unnecessary imported affectation. 🙂

  14. I had never heard of “What cheer ho”. I assume that this must be the origin of “wotcher”.

  15. There’s also “wotcher” as an informal greeting, which apparently does come from the “What cheer, ho!” mentioned in the first paragraph – definitely dated, with a cheeky cockney / 1950s / “Beano” comic feel to it – but I still hear it sometimes.

    1. Confirming my subscrioption, Ben sent a message with the greeding ‘Howdy!’ This is (in my experience) not a greeting that has crossed the pond from west to east, except in black-and-white westerns.

      1. Although associated with cowboys, ‘Howdy’ is surely just a slight variation on the Northern English ‘How do’ which I mentioned; both being shortened versions of ‘How do you do’, which was often used in the full form, but contains both abbreviations.
        There is the partial abbreviation, in, for example, Wallace and Gromit: ‘Here’s a fine how d’you do’ and, I think, in Gilbert and Sullivan: ‘Here’s a how-de-do.’

  16. Ben,

    I mean a combination of “best wishes” and “something vaguely positive,” which I find particularly appropriate as I age since most of my email friends are 69 or 70 and have various health issues, usually orthopedic. I DON’T mean it as a toast, especially since I’m a non-drinker.



  17. Cheers is definitely the informal version of thanks (itself the informal ‘kind regards’), denoting a somewhat more positive expression, and/or sent to someone on familiar terms.

    Also a useful cue for ambiguous emails:
    Can we speak at 11? Cheers
    Can we speak at 11? Thanks
    First one – there might be cake
    Second one – there might be a P45

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