BTW, whatever became of Joel Furr?

Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard that “tips” in a restaurant comes from the acronym “To Insure Prompt Service.” This sounds like a pre-internet urban legend. First of all it just sounds wrong, and second of all if it were true it should be “teps”: “To Ensure Prompt Service.” Could you “tip” me off to the correct origin? — Mark Jacobs.

Hmm. You seem to be using “pre-internet” in the sense of “pre-Enlightenment,” perhaps implying that the advent of sites such as snopes.com has finally put paid to silly stories about Pop Rocks and the death of Mikey, but I have my doubts. It’s true that the net has made it much easier to check the veracity of emailed stories. One of the first wonders of the pre-web internet that I encountered, back in the early 1990s, was the usenet discussion group alt.folklore.urban, still going strong today, where popular fables were debunked by the dozens every day. But I still receive at least a few queries about classic linguistic urban legends every week. The problem seems to be that we have a natural tendency to believe such stories, but no compensating urge to actually investigate their truth. Oh well. At least I know I’ll never run out of questions.

I answered a query about the “tip” story a decade ago, but since it’s still making the rounds I’ll take another whack at it. The form of the story that my reader back then had encountered was “tip” supposedly being an acronym for “to insure promptness,” and he also raised the question of the proper word being, in such cases, “ensure” rather than “insure.” It’s true that “insure” has traditionally been used mostly in financial contexts (particularly to mean “to arrange a guarantee of compensation in case of loss or failure”), while “ensure” has been used in broader contexts to mean simply “to make sure something happens or is done” (“Dave’s credit card bill ensured that he went to work every day”). But both words (along with “assure”) are commonly used today in that general “make sure it happens” sense. So the fact that the term isn’t “tep” doesn’t prove much.

Fortunately, the story about”tip” being an acronym for “to insure promptness” (and its various variants) has much bigger problems. In the first place, acronyms, pronounceable words created from the initial letters of a phrase (such as NATO, AIDS, etc.) were very rare in English before World War II. (Similar but unpronounceable abbreviations, such as LCD or SSN, are usually called simply “initialisms.”) Since “tip” in the “gratuity” sense dates back to the early 18th century, it is extremely unlikely to have begun life as an acronym.

Furthermore, the origin of “tip” in this sense is not a huge mystery. It appears to be connected to the use of “tip” among urban thieves in the 17th century to mean “to pass something surreptitiously, especially money, to another person,” which in turn probably came from the even older (13th century) use of “tip” to mean “to touch lightly, especially as a warning.” There are several “tips” in English, including the noun meaning “the end, top or point of a thing” and the verb meaning “to fall over or cause to slope,” but this “tip” is most likely a descendant of the German “tippen,” meaning “to poke or tap lightly.” This sense of tapping someone lightly to communicate surreptitiously also underlies our use of “tip” to mean “inside or secret information.”

Lastly, unless there’s only one restaurant in town and you eat there every day, a good tip doesn’t “insure” (or “ensure”) promptness, since, at least on my planet, it’s given at the end of the meal. But I guess the more logical “trp” (To Reward Promptness) was just too hard to pronounce.

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