Knowing that the value of etiquette is beyond measure, Miss Manners was interested to hear of a family who is setting a not unreasonable price on it: $141.6 billion, calculated at $190 a second.
That is to say, it would not be unreasonable if suggested flatly as what good manners are worth, in the sense that a cash figure is put on something priceless and irreplaceable, as for insurance purposes. (There are times when Miss Manners wishes she had insured poor old etiquette, because it seemed certifiably dead.) The amount was actually calculated as interest on a loan, for a legal case against the United States of America, on which Miss Manners does not venture an opinion. The etiquette angle was omitted from the news account that is Miss Manners's source, although it certainly leapt out at her.
Here is the story, with Miss Manners's solemn promise that it will eventually bring her to her point.
It seems that a Pennsylvania merchant and landowner named Jacob DeHaven lent $450,000 in gold and supplies to the Continental Congress in 1777. His farm adjoined Valley Forge, and George Washington, as commander in chief of the Continental Army, had declared: "Unless aid comes, our affairs must soon become desperate beyond the possibility of recovery. The Army must disband or starve."
Mr. DeHaven responded, the Army did not disband, and the rest, as they say, is American History 101.
Only it seems that the benefactor neither made it into history nor got his money back. He attempted to collect, his descendants claim, but did not succeed to his satisfaction. They are trying to do it for him.
A bit of research proved that the Continental Congress offered 6 percent on loans in those days, and the total of $141.6 billion was calculated in today's dollars, with interest compounded daily. Compounding it yearly takes the debt down to $98.3 billion.
A United States Claims Court judge ruled that the time specified in the statute of limitations has been passed in this matter, but the case was then brought to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Neither the Treasury Department nor the 800 DeHaven collateral descendants (Jacob DeHaven died childless) seem to think that the amount will actually be paid.
But (thank you for your patience -- here comes the point) the descendants have indicated that they might accept a "thank you" instead. Or perhaps the present of a statue of Jacob DeHaven from a (belatedly) grateful nation.
"They understand about the deficit," said their lawyer. "But they want some acknowledgment of what Jacob DeHaven did."
Do you hear that -- you who don't write thank-you letters? You who grumble that people ought to give you presents for the pleasure of giving, and not expect you to have the burden of thanking them? You who postponed thanking and now claim it's too late?
A nice thank-you, even 213 years late, or $141.6 billion: That is the choice.
There have been other recent examples in the news of the power of polite words. Japan officially apologized to Korea for its colonization of that country from 1905 to 1945. East Germany has now apologized for its share in the Holocaust.
Mere words, one could complain, and not even from the same people who committed the offenses. What good does that do?
The answer is that it does do good. Thanks and apologies are properly tendered immediately by the objects of generosity and perpetrators of offenses. But the desire for them does not simply fade away. It is better to make a late acknowledgment than to allow an unpaid etiquette debt to be compounded daily.
Q. I am a single, youthful 22-year-old and have been told on many an occasion that I have that "girl-next-door" appearance. This does not bother me in the slightest. I am past the trying-to-look-older-than-my-age stage. In fact, it bothers me that I will turn 23 next month.
When I am in a store or restaurant and an employee addresses me, he or she will usually call me "Miss." But when someone calls me "Ma'am," this word offends me.
I want to say in a polite way that I would prefer to be addressed as "Miss," but I never do. Is this a justified request? Is there a more constructive way I could let these people know how I feel about the word?
A. Sure. Explain to them, as you did to Miss Manners, how young and attractive you consider yourself, and how distressed you are about turning 23.
Do you really expect Miss Manners to consider you justified in exposing your vanity to strangers who are behaving correctly? "Ma'am" is a title of respect, not a label for ladies who are over the hill. Chic young princesses are so addressed.