The phrase ‘Yours Sincerely’ comes from the Latin ‘Sincerus’ meaning pure or sound.
Many moons ago, my English teacher told me how it came about. He was an elderly Irish gentleman; an old fashioned bachelor who lodged in a boarding house and wore a don’s gown dusty with chalk.
Mr Concannon deserved a medal for putting up all of us heartless, little swine. Instinctively, we loved the bones of him. Knowing he was something rare, we treated him as a sort of mascot. But teenage boys are run by hormones. Resentful at being treated like children, not yet able to act like men, we only knew how to do two things: sneer and pout. So Mr Concannon, if it’s any consolation, this one’s for you.
According to his tale, the Romans used to stamp out beakers from thin metal sheets. When they noticed a flaw in a finished item, like a hole or a poor seal, instead of throwing it away they plugged it with pewter coloured wax and sold it cheap. Of course this worked great for wine, but hot drinks made the wax melt. Therefore if you wanted to avoid an embarrassing spill you bought something sincere – sin (without) cera (wax).
People no longer give credit to this story, or its variations. One is that sculptors smoothed over flawed marble with a mixture of wax and marble dust which melted in the hot sun. Instead they believe it comes from the Indo-European root ‘ker’ – to grow. This makes sincere something like ‘one harvest’ or unadulterated. Ker also gave the name Ceres to the Roman harvest goddess, who in turn gave us the word ‘cereal’.
Mr Concannon also taught that you only finish a letter with ‘Yours sincerely’ if you begin with the person’s name. Adding, how can you be sincere to someone you don’t know?
‘Yours faithfully’ was reserved for those letters beginning ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. Or even ‘Dear Sir or Madman’ as a disgruntled customer once addressed me when I was working as a clerk for the Inland Revenue!