Q From an AOL subscriber: Spiff is a word that has been in use in the sales and marketing business for decades (at least). It is a small, immediate bonus for a sale, but I cannot find what the letters stand for or where it came from.
A You hint that it might be an acronym. There is a widespread belief that it is indeed one, usually expanded to Sales Promotion Incentive Fund, though it is also said to abbreviate Sales Person Incentive Fund (and as a result it is often spelled SPIF, though the form spiff is also common, with no explanation of where the extra f comes from). One Web site defines it as “a loose term referring to an on-the-fly addition to the compensation plan used to motivate the sales force in a particular way by providing additional sales credit or payment for certain types of sales.”
This belief in its acronymic origin is so widespread that to challenge it is to open oneself to savage rebuttal. However, it is quite certainly a modern attempt to explain the origin of spiff, so spelled, and that that word came first, with the acronym arriving much more recently as a well-meant but false attempt to explain its origin. I say this because there are many references to spiff in slang dictionaries and in the Oxford English Dictionary. The latter quotes an unidentified slang dictionary of 1859: “the percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock”.
In 1890, the term appeared in an article about London shop girls in the Pall Mall Gazette: “Suffice it to mention a few stock offences, such as too long a meal, late arrival, incorrect bills, incorrect checking, taking bad money, giving wrong change, leaving one’s department without a just reason, and many other misdemeanours which trip the unwary. To balance this network of penalties a ‘spiff’ system is usually adopted, spiffs being premiums placed on certain articles, not of the last fashion, indicated by a marvellous hieroglyphic put on the price ticket. These marks are well known by the assistant, and the almost invisible mystic sign explains why an article, wholly unsuitable, is foisted on the jaded customer as ‘just the thing’.”
It seems to be connected with the use of the word in the middle of the nineteenth century to mean a dandy or somebody smartly dressed (hence spiffy, and to spiff up — to improve the appearance of a place or a person), but nobody seems to have been able to disentangle the threads of which sense came first, or what influenced what, or where the word originally came from. It’s certainly not an acronym, since words formed from the initial letters of other words are rare before the 1930s and unknown before about 1890.