I sometimes meet the phrase "if you please" used in spoken English. As the definitions say it is sometimes used as a very polite and formal way of attracting someone's attention or of asking them to do something or is sometimes used to express surprise or annoyance about something.

What's the usage of please here? I looked up its definitions as a verb and noun and can't really get which definition is applied in this phrase.

At first I thought it was an extended version of the exclamatory "please" with a slight shade of contempt. However, I am not sure whether I am right in my thoughts.

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    I think the sense of it is more like an inversion of "if it please you," a construction that has parallels in French (s'il vous plait) and other languages, with the it dropped. – Robusto Aug 10 '17 at 13:53
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    @Robusto: It could also be seen as a "reduced" version of If you be pleased (which Shakespeare certainly used). In situations like this, even if one particular form could be definitively established as the "original" (unlikely, I feel), I still think it's reasonable to suppose that some people might subsequently have assumed a different source. And even though their assumption was incorrect, they might still use it to support their own adoption of the shorter form, giving it greater traction. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 10 '17 at 14:17

You've found a good one. The short answer is that in some places and times, to please can mean and has meant to like or to be pleased. This also shows up in the expression do as you please.

For more detail, we'll start with an interesting entry in the OED:

please, v.
II. With a person as subject: to be satisfied, to desire, to like.
6. intr.
a. To take pleasure, to be satisfied. Obs.

Notice the which indicates that the usage no longer exists. Judging by the examples they give, it mostly died off about 700 years ago (despite etymonline.com's claim that it arose only 500 years ago). But there are a few examples as recently as 100 years ago, such as this one:

1908 .. Wind in Willows .. And take your time tomorrow morning—breakfast at any hour you please!

Today, we would probably say like or choose in place of please.

The words please and like both have interesting developments in more than one language. The idea of liking something and the idea of something being likeable tend to cross-contaminate.

I suspect this is because of the tension involved in the question of agency. Who is responsible for your pleasant experience of an apple? Do you like it, or does it please you?1

Some languages express both, and some settle on one or the other. In English we tend to place the agency with the one liking. But consider the Spanish verb gustar as in Me gustan las manzanas: this is naturally translated "I like apples," literally translated "Apples please me / are to my taste." I don't know of many verbs in Spanish that let you put it the other way round.

Interestingly, in English, like and please appear to have switched places at some point in the past. Here's another bizarre OED entry for us modern speakers:

like, v. 1
I. To please.
1. Frequently with non-referential it as subject. Also occasionally impers.
a. trans. To please, to be pleasing or agreeable to, to suit (someone). Now arch.
Originally with dative.

1767 .. tr. Plautus Comedies .. Hold—I have a thought;—See, if it likes you.

Arch. here stands for archaic.

One of my favourite quotes about this is the Middle English one that a professor cited in the class in which I learned about this phenomenon in the first place. It's a little too much to go into its structure here, but it appears to literally mean:

Pears liked the king.

But in Modern English, the king does the liking, and the pears do the pleasing!

1 And even if you like the apple, does it disagree with you? (This expression means "to have trouble digesting"... but notice how the agent switches!)

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