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Q From Claire McBain, Thomas Lusk, Donna Guindon, and others: What is the origin of the word tip as in the tip you would give a waitress at a restaurant?

A Could I first dispose of the odd belief that it is an acronym for the phrase To Improve Performance? Modern folk etymology has a curious idea that the source of almost any short word lies in an acronym (perhaps because we’re surrounded by them), but the truth is that few such inventions are found before the 1930s.

Actually, this is a most interesting word. There are three distinct senses of tip in English: the one for an extremity probably comes from Old Norse; the one with the sense of overturn possibly also comes from a Scandinavian language, though nobody is sure. The one you’re asking about may derive from the German tippen, or possibly also be connected with the idea of an extremity, though authorities in language history are hedging their bets through lack of evidence.

It turns up first in the thirteenth century, meaning to touch lightly (as in the game tip and run). By the early 1600s, it had become thieves’ cant with the sense of handing something over, or passing something surreptitiously to another person. This may derive from the idea of lightly touching somebody’s arm in order to communicate. (This is supported by other appearances of the word in phrases like tip the wink and tip off and the noun tip for a piece of inside information, say on a horse race.)

One specific thing that was passed was a small sum of money. By the beginning of the eighteenth century it had taken on its modern meaning of giving a gratuity for a small service rendered; the first recorded use is in George Farquhar’s play The Beaux Stratagem of 1706 (“Then I, Sir, tips me the Verger with half a Crown”). By the 1750s, it could also mean the gratuity itself.

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Page created 09 Sep 2000