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shameless pleading






BTW, whatever became of Joel Furr?

Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard that “tips” in a restaurant comes from the acronym “To Insure Prompt Service.” This sounds like a pre-internet urban legend. First of all it just sounds wrong, and second of all if it were true it should be “teps”: “To Ensure Prompt Service.” Could you “tip” me off to the correct origin? — Mark Jacobs.

Hmm. You seem to be using “pre-internet” in the sense of “pre-Enlightenment,” perhaps implying that the advent of sites such as has finally put paid to silly stories about Pop Rocks and the death of Mikey, but I have my doubts. It’s true that the net has made it much easier to check the veracity of emailed stories. One of the first wonders of the pre-web internet that I encountered, back in the early 1990s, was the usenet discussion group alt.folklore.urban, still going strong today, where popular fables were debunked by the dozens every day. But I still receive at least a few queries about classic linguistic urban legends every week. The problem seems to be that we have a natural tendency to believe such stories, but no compensating urge to actually investigate their truth. Oh well. At least I know I’ll never run out of questions.

I answered a query about the “tip” story a decade ago, but since it’s still making the rounds I’ll take another whack at it. The form of the story that my reader back then had encountered was “tip” supposedly being an acronym for “to insure promptness,” and he also raised the question of the proper word being, in such cases, “ensure” rather than “insure.” It’s true that “insure” has traditionally been used mostly in financial contexts (particularly to mean “to arrange a guarantee of compensation in case of loss or failure”), while “ensure” has been used in broader contexts to mean simply “to make sure something happens or is done” (“Dave’s credit card bill ensured that he went to work every day”). But both words (along with “assure”) are commonly used today in that general “make sure it happens” sense. So the fact that the term isn’t “tep” doesn’t prove much.

Fortunately, the story about”tip” being an acronym for “to insure promptness” (and its various variants) has much bigger problems. In the first place, acronyms, pronounceable words created from the initial letters of a phrase (such as NATO, AIDS, etc.) were very rare in English before World War II. (Similar but unpronounceable abbreviations, such as LCD or SSN, are usually called simply “initialisms.”) Since “tip” in the “gratuity” sense dates back to the early 18th century, it is extremely unlikely to have begun life as an acronym.

Furthermore, the origin of “tip” in this sense is not a huge mystery. It appears to be connected to the use of “tip” among urban thieves in the 17th century to mean “to pass something surreptitiously, especially money, to another person,” which in turn probably came from the even older (13th century) use of “tip” to mean “to touch lightly, especially as a warning.” There are several “tips” in English, including the noun meaning “the end, top or point of a thing” and the verb meaning “to fall over or cause to slope,” but this “tip” is most likely a descendant of the German “tippen,” meaning “to poke or tap lightly.” This sense of tapping someone lightly to communicate surreptitiously also underlies our use of “tip” to mean “inside or secret information.”

Lastly, unless there’s only one restaurant in town and you eat there every day, a good tip doesn’t “insure” (or “ensure”) promptness, since, at least on my planet, it’s given at the end of the meal. But I guess the more logical “trp” (To Reward Promptness) was just too hard to pronounce.

13 comments to Tip

  • Tom

    Tips comes from the ara of time when people would enter a restaurant and give money to the host to insure proper service. This was always done before the meal.

  • Nick

    I believe you’re correct in terms of the word not being an accronym given its time of origin. As far as when to tip, if you’ve ever seen goodfellas, you tip at the beginning to ensure that you’re taken care of. It’s possible that over time that good service was expected and than rewarded, or not.

  • Marino

    To lmprove promptness does’t make sense. The service had been provided already

  • Functional Lye

    When TIP was adopted into the Gratuity portion of services provided; it also adopted the meaning “To Insure Promptness”
    Words have root meaning and they were displayed well here. However, words also evolve.
    Have a nice day

  • Ronda

    I thought the acronym stood for, “to insure proper service.”

  • Steve Henderson

    I agree that ‘trp’ would work, but, I would have to apply the acronym ‘trap’ to many commercial services I’ve received: “to reward adequate promptness.”

  • Tom Biggs

    In Joolz Guide’s Youtube video (“Funny English Idioms – and why we say them!”) He shows a Twinnings Tea museum that goes back to the 1700s, which has box that says ‘T.I.P’ with a slot for money ‘to insure promptness’.

  • Michael ODonnell

    In 18th century coffee houses in London. Written on the side of the coffee bowls they drank from. ” To insure promptitude”

  • joshi

    to improve performance

  • Harry p

    To Insure Promptness and done prior to service as a bribe to be the preferred customer. As we can guess, over time, if everyone did it before hand, it lost the intended influence. So, it evolved from being a bribe before the service to a reward for service given.

  • Fritz

    Acronyms were used internally by businesses in the 18th century. Another word with a similar history is Spiff

    This was a sales incentive and SPIF is the acronym used to abbreviate the full phrase Sales Performance Incentive Fund
    OED credits its use as a slang work to an 1859 slang dictionary with this definition
    “The percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock.”
    The Pall Mall Gazette Apr 2, 1890 had this to say.
    ‘a “spiff” system is usually adopted, spiffs being premiums placed on certain articles, not of the last fashion, indicated by a marvelous 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.”‘
    Being told you look “just spiffy” is not a compliment :P

    This acronym with it’s 1859 drapers merchant meaning is still current in business and has spread far beyond the drapers.

    No one knows who used it first, other than it started with drapers (cloth merchants) who used SPIF bonuses to encourage sales clerks to push the clearance goods.

    Before the printing press, failure to use abbreviations, acronyms and symbols to reduce the amount of writing needed was uncommon. With the advent of the printing press, fully spelled out words became more common, but abbreviations, acronyms, special symbols and other character count shortening measures continue to be used due to the effort needed to set the type. Offset printing and other modern printing machines that transfer an image of the page have made abbreviated text less useful, but inertia causes continued use, with many special characters being added to the standard character set including, but not limited to “+-&%@#$^*”, etc.

  • Patnav

    The relevant part is from 2:40. If it won’t play it’s to do with Twinings tea shop in london

  • Patrick Needham

    Drat.. seems I lost the link.. but check out joolz guides English idioms

Leave a Reply to Patrick Needham Cancel reply




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