An insidious and corrupting phrase has oozed into the American language. This phrase - I'll disclose it momentarily - is poisonous and destructive to all that we hold dear. It has infiltrated our usage at nearly every level, like starlings infesting a city park. One hears it uttered aloud in perfectly polite circles, which suggests that American civilization is on the skids.

This phrase, since you asked, is none other than that trendiest of throwaway lines, "No problem." You hear it said everywhere, by almost everyone, and in utter disregard of the context or the circumstances of the moment.This phrase slides easily from the lips of a waitress in a local lunch joint. I ask her to bring me some oil and vinegar, say, for my salad. Instead of saying "Sure," or "You bet," or even "Yes, sir," the waitress will respond, to no one in particular: "No problem."

Now, let us analyze this phrase as used by this waitress in this situation.

What strikes one immediately is that, in her response to the diner's request, the waitress puts herself instantly on the defensive. "No problem," she says, and one can almost see her throwing up her emotional guard. The subtext in this encounter, although unspoken, might go something like this: "Of course we have oil and vinegar, mister; we always have oil and vinegar, and I want you to know right here and now that you aren't asking me for anything I can't handle."

The waitress does not say this with a snooty tone, you understand, or even with a snap to her voice.

But nothing is what it seems, as the deconstructionists might say, and when the waitress says "no problem," what she actually means is this: There are a great many problems in this luncheonette, there really are, and she hasn't had a raise in six months, and not much time off, either. In spite of it all, in spite of her feeling sorry for herself, she tries to keep a stiff upper lip, and therefore, blocking the realities all around her, she says (yep): "No problem."

As the customer who requested the oil and vinegar, I find myself greatly bothered by the waitress's response. I am not interested in even a hint of what might be wrong with the luncheonette or with her personal life; I am not interested in thinking that, yes, there normally is a problem (or several problems), but that in this one instance, on this lucky day, there in fact is no problem and therefore I can have my salad dressing.

My problem-free waitress is by no means the only example of this odd construction that I encounter.

Saying "no problem" is usually a gross deception, simply because it means the opposite of what the words seem to say. On a trip abroad last year, a succession of local guides and factotums, when confronted with a minor question, would invariably give forth with our favorite phrase. As we ruefully learned, however, whenever a travel agent or local official would say "no problem," it was a sure sign that in fact there was a problem, usually one of considerable consequence.

People say "no problem" to me in situations where it is simply ludicrous. When I go to buy a shirt and ask for my size in blue, what does the clerk reply? "No problem." Silently, I repress an urge to retort: "Of course there is no problem. I know that. I am simply buying a shirt. It is not a problem-filled exercise. It is not even difficult."

In years past, when one would make any sort of inquiry of another person, the usual response was something like "I'll see," "yes," "no," "I doubt it," or "Just a minute please, I'll check." This was an honest give-and-take, and a useful exchange of information that advanced civilization, however marginally. However, today's fashionable response, "no problem," is an utterance designed solely to soothe and deflect. As such, it is the antithesis of communication.