Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

A Tip about Tips

Michael Minor wrote this morning with a question we hear quite often:

I heard or read somewhere that in [Merry] Old England, the local pubs and/or inns would have a small box next to the entrance and it was for patrons to leave their comments or maybe later, a few coins, regarding the service they received during their visit. The box was labeled “To Insure Promptness”. Then some hundred years later it went to leaving a “tip” on the table when leaving to pay for the meal or the tab.

Using acronyms as words is a very, very recent trend and it is much more widespread in the US than in other English-speaking nations. Words like “tip” and “posh” (port outbound starboard homeward) are too old to have been created this way. I think sonar might have been the first converted acronym and it seems clear that the phrase it was supposed to come from was created at the same time as the word if not subsequent to it.

No one knows how tip originated but a far more logical origin is the verb, to tip, meaning “to hit lightly”, as a tipped ball or foul tip in baseball. This verb may have originally applied to lightly tapping someone’s hand with a small coin. This verb is also the origin of the expression, tip for tap, which for some mysterious reason has turned into the meaningless tit for tat in Modern US English.

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Next week I will review Will Shortz’s feature-length movie, Wordplay. Stay tuned.

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