bæk-sheesh, bæk-sheesh • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: A gratuity or bribe (depending on your point of view) given to someone for a favor or to expedite some service.
Notes: You may run into this word spelled bakshish or bakhshish, but the spelling given above is currently the most widely accepted. Because it sounds so foreign, it has not created a derivational family and so remains a lexical orphan.
In Play: Today's Good Word is a fascinating lexical chameleon with positive and negative connotations that shift depending on the cultural perspective of the speaker. It may be looked upon as a gift to someone who has helped you: "I gave the plumber a small baksheesh of vodka for completing the job so quickly." It can also be seen as a bribe to get someone to do something: "You won't find a plumber who can fix the problem today without greasing his palm with a bit of baksheesh."
Word History: Although we might associate today's word with the Arab world, it is actually a Persian word, bakhshish "gift, present", a noun from the Middle Persian verb bakhshidan "to give a present". Persian is not a Semitic language like Hebrew and Arabic, but an Indo-European language like English, French, and German. So the root of this word appears in languages we are more familiar with. In Russian it is the bog- of bogatyi "rich" (and maybe bog "god" itself). In a related language, Czech, [g] became [h] (the Czechs call their capital Praha "Prague"), so nebogy became nebohý "poor" (ne "not" + bohý "rich"). Yiddish picked up this word and later lent it to English as nebbish "a wimp". (Today's Good Word came from Magi of the Alpha Agora, but we were unable to get his or her real name for any amount of baksheesh.)