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A scene from InSecurity: El Negotiator (Allan Feildel)
A scene from InSecurity: El Negotiator (Allan Feildel)

Warren Clements: Word Play

A tip: After a tipple, you could get tipsy and tip over Add to ...

Tipping is in the air. Preet Banerjee wrote in The Globe this month about the size of tips one leaves in restaurants. Randy Carlyle, new head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said he wants his players to understand that what he has asked of them so far “is only the tip of the iceberg on our expectations.”

And – speaking of icebergs – Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s striking of an iceberg in the North Atlantic, a catastrophe that resulted in the ship’s tilting and disappearing beneath the surface. “She tipped, headfirst, lower and lower into the water,” wrote Albert Caldwell, one of those who watched from the lifeboats, “until all that we could see was the stern of the boat outlined against the stormy sky.”

That sense of tipping entered English by 1400, but nobody is sure how. It gave birth by the late 1500s to tipsy, meaning in danger of toppling over from a surfeit of liquor.

The tip of the iceberg, in the sense of the extremity, may originate in the Old Norse noun typpi, says one source, but another says the word hasn’t been found in Old Norse. This is how to start a fight in a Scandinavian bar.

The tip that one gives a waiter, a sense first recorded in 1755, emerged from underworld slang in London in the 1600s. To tip back then was to give someone something. To tip him the wink was to wink an eye, either as a warning or a gesture of collusion, a sense that led to the expression to tip someone off.

A 1699 dictionary of thieves’ argot translated “Tip me your lour or I’ll mill ye” as “Give me your money or I’ll kill you.” Fortunately, that is not a line often heard in better restaurants. Similarly, an 1811 dictionary of slang translated “Tip me a hog” as “Give me a shilling.” A hog is also modern slang for a motorcycle. It is a bad idea to tip that kind of hog, particularly outside a gang’s clubhouse. Consider that a safety tip.

One writer speculates that the tip as gratuity may have derived from the noun stipend, which entered English in the 1400s in the sense of a fixed periodical payment, from the Latin stipem, wages. It’s an attractive theory, but there is nothing to back it up.

Similarly, there has long been talk, as in J.R. Ripley’s 1928 book Believe It or Not, that tip is an acronym for “to insure promptness.” The supposition is that in the 1700s English coffeehouses fitted their tables with coin boxes into which customers would place money for the servers before a meal. This explanation is almost certainly folk etymology, a retroactive explanation grounded in imagination rather than reality. In any case, Ripley’s advice that a gratuity be left before rather than after a meal has not caught on.

Online reaction to The Globe’s article on tipping ran the gamut, with some saying they tip generously and others saying tipping is rubbish. As it happens, a tip has been rubbish in Britain since the 1800s, when the word was first used to describe garbage being tipped into a dump. Tip is also the name for the truck from which garbage is offloaded and for the site where the stuff lands.

Although tipsy derived from tipping over, tipple – the alcoholic drink, and the act of drinking it – did not. At least as far back as 1396, a tippler was an innkeeper who ran a bar. It is possible he got his name from the act of tippling. But since there is no record of the verb or noun tipple until the 1500s, it is more likely the tipple got its name from the inn’s tippler.

One school of thought says tippler derives from the Norwegian dialect tipla, to drip slowly. Before the argument starts, I shall tiptoe away.

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