The two of the most frequently used words in the Russian language, the two words without which it is simply impossible to get around in Russia, even when one isn’t trying to be the least polite, are actually more than just two words. I believe that anyone studying any language at all sooner or later will arrive at the point where it feels like your soul is screaming out loud for an etymologic dictionary (for those studying language but who have yet to arrive at this soul-screaming point – an etymologic dictionary explains the origin of words rather than their meaning). It does not take long when in possession of such a dictionary before one realizes that the most common greeting phrase in Russia, здравствуйте (or здравствуй, a variant which is a little less formal, yet still miles away from being as informal as the only-among-close-friends привет) actually is short for the original greeting of здрава желаю, meaning “I wish [you] health”. It can also be said that здравствуйте means “I wish you to be healthy”. Both of these meanings underline, in my opinion, the eternal Russian dread of disease. Therefore it cannot come as any surprise to anyone familiar with this culture that its people would have a greeting that means wishing everyone health all the time.
The original meaning of the second word is not much of a surprise either, and ever the more interesting for of it. The origin of the word спасибо makes a natural connection with the long tradition of Orthodoxy in Russia. During many centuries the phrase used to thanking people спаси вас/тебя Бог [God save you] shrunk into the short спасибо, which is now the word used by people on a daily basis from Kalingrad to Vladivostok. With time the phrase was turned into a substantive, and we are now allwoded to say things like спасибо большое [big thank you], when we really want to express our gratitude.
As for the third most used word in the Russian language, that hard-to-pronounce-yet-of-absolute-necessity пожалуйста [please; certainly! by all means!; you’re welcome!; don’t mention it], I’m as lost as the next foreigner living in Russia to what its origin might be. It could have come from the adverb пожалуй [perhaps, very likely, it may be] that in turn comes from the verb пожаловать, as used in добро пожаловать [welcome]. It is the perfect to the imperfect verb жаловать, which means “to grant, to bestow, to reward, to favor, to regard with favor”. That’s my guess, anyway. Anyone who might have a qualified guess of their own about what its etymology might be? Or maybe someone actually knows?