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Everything is Tiptop

By Anatoly Liberman

Long ago I wrote a column with the title “Tit for Tat.” Engl. tip for tap also existed at one time. Words like tip, tap, top, tick, tack, tock, tit, tat, tot, as well as those with voiced endings like tid- (compare tidbit), tad, and tod (“bush; fox”), are ideal candidates for sound imitative coinages. One of the Swedish calls to hens is tup-tup-tuppa (tup “rooster”). The Russian for “knock-knock” is took-took-took, whereas top-top means “thump-thump.” The symbolic value of such words is equally obvious. Tip and tit designate small objects, while the things called tap and tat must be big. All this is perfectly clear. But an etymologist is expected to provide more than a bird’s eye of the origin of every word, and this is where the Devil, whose favorite abode is the details, shows his ugly head, horns and all. For example, tup is “rooster” in Swedish but “uncastrated ram” in English (whence the verb tup “to copulate,” memorable from Othello). Are we dealing with an ancient, undifferentiated name for a male animal that acquired one meaning in Swedish and another in English or with a sound complex applied to the rooster and the ram by chance? Was the idea of copulation foremost in the minds of those animal breeders who dealt with mammals and fowl (after all, tup is as expressive and energetic as our beloved F-word, and rooster is merely a polite substitute for cock). These and many similar questions are hard to answer, mainly because the list of the nouns and verbs to be explored has vague contours. Tit ~ tat ~ tot remind us of tut-tut, which in turn resembles dud. The so-called nasalized variants also suggest themselves: dimp(le), dump, thump, tumble, and a host of others. They multiply like maggots, have partly overlapping meanings, pretend to be related, but refuse to divulge their pedigree.

Another aggravating factor is the rampant homonymy among such words. First comes tip “a pointed end” (alongside the verb to tip, as in Chaucer’s tipped with horn). It is supposed to have reached England from Scandinavia, for its ancestor did not turn up in Old English. The Old Icelandic form was typpi, evidently from tuppi “top.” It is nice to know that when you look at tip long enough, you discover top. Northern (or Low) German also had tip, but this form, like its English equivalent, was recorded late, so that we cannot judge to what extent (if at all) it enjoyed popularity in England and interacted with the Scandinavian form. Thus, tip is top. Next we notice the verb tip, whose original meaning was “to pat,” and realize that tip is also tap (anyway, tap is simply pat read from right to left). This verb had a strange history. It surfaced in a most respectable 13th century book, then disappeared for 400 years, reemerged in thieves’ cant, and stayed in honest people’s usage with the sense “to strike lightly,” as in the following sentence from Swift (cited in The Century Dictionary; Swift detested the newfangled monosyllabic slang of his time): “A third rogue tips me by the elbow.” Perhaps it is the same verb as in tipped with horn (tap “touch with a point”?), but there is no knowing.

Tip also means “overturn” (a tip-cart in British English corresponds to the American dump truck), and it too may be of Scandinavian descent. But it emerged in texts so late (in the 17th century) that its “prehistory” is beyond reconstruction. In close proximity to tip we find tipple and tipsy. Tippler seems to have preceded tipple. If such is the order of these words’ appearance in language and not only in our texts, then the verb is a back formation from the noun (like beg from beggar and sculpt from sculptor). Presumably, a tipsy person is unsteady on his legs (in this delicate situation, we will not say his or her and avoid using their). The suffix -sy is not productive, even though it occurs in a few adjectives, such as topsy-turvy, and deceptively in clumsy, flimsy, and so forth. The circumstances in which tipsy sprang up remain unclear, especially because a tipsy person, unlike somebody who is three sheets in the wind, cannot serve as the embodiment of unsteadiness. Regional Norwegian has tippa “drink in small quantities” and tipla “drink slowly.” Verbs with the suffix -le (they tend to refer to recurring action) are called frequentative. In English, babble, cackle, and the like are usually of northern German or Dutch origin. In the Scandinavian languages, such formations exist too; however, some frequentative verbs are probably native English (thus, gobble seems to be from gob). Be that as it may be, tipla is a frequentative extension of tippa. A tippler sips liquor, that is, indulges in what is called tippa. (I wish we had the noun sippler.) The idea of smallness is unmistakable in tippa, but the connection with tipping and tapping is not. Tap “faucet” provides no help, for its basic meaning is “plug.”

The most interesting part of the story is the origin of tip “to give advice” and tip “gratuity.” In principle, it is not too difficult to derive tip “advise in a small way” from tip “touch,” and tip “gratuity” from “thing ‘tipped’ into a hand.” For Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary appeared in 1755, tip “give” was “a low word.” Colloquial and slangy phrases with the verb tip were frequent, and some of them are still around: “tip me your daddle or flipper” (hand), “tip me a hog” (shilling), “tip him a wink” (advice), “tip the traveler” (humbug a guest at an inn with travelers’ yarns), “tip the double” (decamp),“tip the grampus” (an old seafaring phrase: “duck a skulker for being asleep on his watch”), “tip a stave” (sing), “tip one’s rags a gallop” (run away; thieves’ slang), to mention a few. It is the predominantly “low” sphere in which this meaning of the verb tip flourished and a sudden explosion of its use in the second half of the 16th century that make the idea of a straight line from tip “touch, tap; turn over” to tip “give” suspect. One wonders whether we have to look for a missing link in northern German slang. German etymological dictionaries are cautious. In the entries on the cognates of tip, tap, and top, we read that the origin of those words is unknown or known insufficiently.

Given the verb tip “provide” (almost anything from money to information), tip “gratuity” constitutes no problem. More often verbs are formed from nouns, but occasionally the process goes in the opposite direction. Two other etymologies of the noun sound improbable. One connects tip with stipend, that is, stip or stips, minus initial s. The other goes back to the following story (I quote from Leo Pap’s 1982 article): “One day at the Cheshire Cheese tavern in London’s Fleet Street—that famous hangout of Dr. Samuel Johnson, of Boswell, Goldsmith, Reynolds, and some other men of letters who had constituted themselves into a Literary Club—a waiter hung a small wooden money box onto the wall near the dining room entrance. On this box, which evidently was in imitation of the receptacles customarily displayed in private houses at Christmas and on visiting days during the year, for donations which the servant staff expected from guests or from the master’s own family—on the box the waiter painted the words TO INSURE PROMPTNESS. The idea, of course, was that entering guests who wanted to be assured of speedy service might do well to drop a tinkling little penny or halfpenny in the box, so as to shoot some joyful energy into the servitor’s tired legs. Similar collection boxes went up in other coffeehouses and hostelries in town; and soon the motto on the box could safely be reduced to the mere initials, T.I.P. Before long, the T.I.P box was commonly referred to as the tip box, whence tip.” Although Pap doubts that the story was “fabricated out of whole cloth,” he does not believe that this is how the word tip came into being. It is indeed a cock and bull story, good enough only to “tip a traveler.” In my experience, all etymologies that refer to common words as acronyms (F.U.C.K. and its ilk) are wrong. Apparently, tip as everybody understood in the days of Johnson, Goldsmith, and Reynolds, was “decoded” into T.I.P. and “glossed” as to insure promptness.

There is one more hitch in the etymology of tip. In several European languages, a gratuity of this sort goes under the name of drink money (German Trinkgeld, French pourboire, etc.), with the intimation that the servitor will drink it up. Engl. tip “a draught of liquor” has been recorded (and let us not forget tippler and tipsy). It is possible but not very probable that two factors contributed to the rise of tip “gratuity”: the money could have been “tipped” into the waiter’s hand, and he could have used it to drink the giver’s health. Ever since the word struck root in the language, waiters have been tapping their patrons’ pockets, and patrons have been tipping waiters. We have perfected the system: add 10%, add 15%, or eat free but give (tip) a “donation.”


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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3 Responses to “Everything is Tiptop”
  1. mollymooly says:

    “all etymologies that refer to common words as acronyms are wrong”

    except O.K., I guess.

  2. Terry Collmann says:

    Tip as in piece of advice is clearly “steering or pushing in a certain direction” and thus linked to tip as in “push over” in one direction and “giving someone a steer” in the other: were not draught animals steered by touching their shoulders, left or right, with the tip (sic) of the whip or goad?

  3. Laura J. says:

    Your mention of “tup” is interesting – I wasn’t previously aware of that particular word, but I’ve often heard young folk use “tap” in a similar meaning in the phrase “I’d tap that!”, a joking expression of approbation of someone’s attractive qualities. (Generally said only around one’s bosom buddies, and quite out of earshot of the person being so assessed.)

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