What is the origin of tipping?

Dear Cecil:

Coming home from a restaurant dinner tonight, the subject of tipping came up and with it many unanswered questions. Naturally, our thoughts turned to you, Cecil. (1) What is the origin of tipping? (2) Who determined the 15 percent figure? (3) Why do cabdrivers expect a tip when their job is to provide door-to-door service? I can understand giving a tip if the cabbie has to handle luggage, but they expect one regardless.

Cecil replies:

The origin of tipping is lost, like so many things, in the Mists of Antiquity. There’s evidence that tipping goes back at least to the age of the Romans, but human nature being what it is, it could just as easily date from the invention of money.

Luckily for us, etymologists have managed to come up with a selection of deeply fascinating etymologies for the phrase “to tip.” The dullest and most likely has it coming from the Latin stips, meaning “gift.” In the days of Geoffrey Chaucer and Middle English, “to tip” meant simply “to give”–as in “tip me that cheate” (“give me that thing”), immortal words penned by one Samuel Rowlands in his 1610 Beadle of Bridewell.

The most charming explanation refers us back to the days of Dr. Johnson and his eighteenth century circle of wits. Upon entering his local coffeeshop for a session of epigram-flinging, Dr. Johnson (or rather, one presumes, his flunky, Mr. Boswell) would drop a few pence in a box labeled “To Insure Promptness” (“T.I.P.”–get it?) in order to encourage a greater display of vigor on the part of the generally listless attendants.

Tipping spread from England to colonial America, but after the revolution it was frowned upon (temporarily) as a hangover from the British class system. One only tipped one’s social inferiors, which, lest we forget, did not exist in the brave new world. Unfortunately, the working class eventually got around to swallowing its pride, and tipping returned with all the fervor it possesses today. Even the Communist countries have not entirely succeeded in eliminating the practice. These days, of course, taxi drivers and waitpersons depend on tips for a substantial part of their income. If you didn’t tip, presumably they’d expect to be paid more, and your restaurant bills and taxi fares would consequently be higher. The fifteen percent standard is mostly a question of what the market will bear. In New York, the figure these days is twenty percent; European restaurants generally add a ten percent gratuity to the bill.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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