Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.