To paraphrase Mr. Bennett, my life holds few distinctions, but I do have a really good sign-off. Since I was twenty-one, I have ended all correspondence As ever.
I’ll give credit where credit is due: I stole it. I first saw the valediction at the bottom of a professor’s e-mail. This professor was something of a legend at the university I attended, a gregarious scholar who had trained generations of burgeoning linguists. By the time I knew him he’d been teaching at the university for some fifty years and was as known for his periodic open houses as for his engaging lectures. I was a senior before I was invited to one of these parties, although really, anyone could go. But that year, I was taking the professor’s seminar and so was added to the guest list.
It was a pleasant e-mail to receive by any standards: warm, welcoming, and written with just enough informality to suggest friendliness while maintaining dignity. And there, at the end, “as ever” and the professor’s name.
I was immediately enchanted. Part of the enchantment is tied to that evening in the professor’s sprawling, Arts and Crafts house, filled with prints and books and instruments, where throngs of students drank and talked and smoked, and he moved among us, beaming, and his wife moved among us, glaring, before retreating somewhere upstairs. It seemed a perfect snapshot of what academia used to be, and what it could be, and is one of the very few wholly happy memories I retain from those years. But even without those trappings, I would have been drawn to “as ever.”
Immediately, it seemed to me that rare thing, an all-purpose valediction: versatile, graceful, elliptical. If I was writing to a loved one, the sign-off implied my affection was going strong. If I hated someone, well, it didn’t rule that out, either. It could be cool or warm, friendly or formal. Or it could be literal: I was still Sadie Stein, and there was very little arguing with that.
I had flirted with others. There was the period in fourth grade where, playing off my S.O.S. initials, I thought the Morse Code of the International Distress Signal was just about the coolest thing ever, and my letters of that period are peppered with dots and dashes in lieu of a signature. There was the Jane Austen phase “Yours, etc.” In high school, I wrote ironic stuff, like “your humble servant” or “yours in Christ.” For a while I experimented with the off-putting “respectfully.” In early college, I opted out entirely, going for a changing roster of applicable adverbs: “gratefully,” “earnestly,” “warmly.” But when I met “as ever,” Prokofiev’s “Love Theme” might as well have been playing in the university’s brutalist 1970s library. It seemed to me the sign-off of the woman I hoped one day to be: self-assured and effortlessly stylish. It seemed to me the harbinger of a better, more gracious time, when people knew these things instinctively and didn’t have to confer with online business-style guides or contend with emoticons.
While the style and self-assurance may not have immediately manifested, “as ever” quickly became automatic. Sometimes I varied it slightly—“Yours, as ever,” “As ever, your” (to boyfriends)—but the basic was my go-to. Unlike other affectations of that period (Sylvia Beach costumes, Capri cigarettes, and gin with pineapple, to name just a few), I knew it would last.
I became proprietary. When I heard a friend had been using the sign-off on her own e-mails—not, tellingly, those directed to me—I seethed. I privately determined that, should I ever write a memoir, this would be my title, written in a dashing scrawl, like a starlet’s handwriting across a black-and-white publicity still.
While digital-age manners experts have naturally covered the valediction waterfront (apparently you can only use respectfully when addressing a superior), really, we’re all making it up as we go along. And, while naturally there were more strictures in earlier times, there was always room for interpretation, and history is filled with examples of creative gentility that puts our pallid “bests” and “take cares” to shame. Writing on the subject, Lewis Carroll opined, “If doubtful whether to end with ‘yours faithfully,’ or ‘yours truly,’ or ‘your most truly,’ (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach ‘yours affectionately’), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his: in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!”
As to the official word on the subject, Emily Post declared, “An intimate letter has no end at all. When you leave the house of a member of your family, you don’t have to think up an especial sentence in order to say good-by. Leave-taking in a letter is the same. The close of a less intimate letter, like taking leave of a visitor in your drawing-room, is necessarily more ceremonious. And the ‘ceremonious close’ presents to most people the greatest difficulty in letter-writing.”
Too true. And if anything, e-mail demands more such decisions every day than ever before. It’s hard to find fault with “best” or “take care,” but they lack a certain spice. (The Hairpin’s Caity Weaver broke standard valedictions down brilliantly.) “Thanks” I personally find terse. “Yours” and “warmly and “sincerely” I like. “Wishing you all good things” I love. The best of all came via a letter in The Paris Review’s archive, from a legendary editor to a famous writer: “I touch your wrists.” I’d marry someone who wrote me that.
Once I got to thinking about this question, I found myself wondering about the derivation of the phrase. Had it meant as much to my professor as it had to me? Had he, too, found the phrase inspiring and life changing? Had it informed his scholarship? I had to know. I wrote him. He wrote back, a prompt, gracious note. It was not what I had expected.
These days, I seem to like to sign notes with ‘best’ or ‘warm best,’ so I evidently shifted.
I think ‘as ever’ is a fairly conventional salutation, meaning ‘I will always be to you as I have been; we will go on together.’
Warm best, as ever, John.
They’re all nice.