A reader asks:
Is it just me, or does the “Dear” seem a little awkward when starting a business letter to someone whom you have never met or communicated [with]? If I have to call someone “Mr.” or something similar, is this person really dear to me?
I had to laugh because I had a similar feeling the first time I had to type a letter signed Yours faithfully in England. Wow, I thought, what a devoted way to sign a business letter! At the time I was very young and literal-minded. (you can read more here about the business letter format).
Dear Sir, Yours sincerely, Yours faithfully, and all such polite expressions are conventions, agreed-upon forms that serve a conventional purpose. They’re not intended to be taken literally.
Language is itself a convention. For example, the object that English speakers call a pencil is by French speakers called a crayon. For American English speakers a “crayon” is “a stick of colored wax composition used for drawing and coloring.”
When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
We can and do make the same words mean different things. It’s all a matter of context.
The “dear” in Dear Sir, does not mean the same as the “dear” that I use to address my grandchild. The one is a convention; the other is an endearment.
The complete conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass may be read here.