My wife just sent me an interesting article about the humble – but ubiquitous – gratuity, probably because I’m always grousing to her about why we have to tip so many different people these days. Not that I’m a bad tipper at all; perhaps just a reluctant one. Anyway, at the close of the article, Liz Weston comments a bit on the folk etymology of the word “tip” (for a gratuity), dismissing the old saw that it’s an acronym for “to improve performance” or “to insure [sic] promptness.” Rather, she tells us, the word “tip” has been in use to refer to a gratuity since the middle of the 18th century, far predating the hey-day of TLA’s in the 1930s–1940s.
Naturally, etymologies always catch my attention, and when I read about one I don’t know myself (like this one), I’ll usually look into it. With the disclaimer: I do not own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which one would often turn for such things. Even without one, I can usually make do, but the OED is especially good for pinpointing the earliest appearance of particular usages. So, anyway ...
According to both the American Heritage Dictionary and MSN Encarta, the etymology of this usage of “tip” is unknown. In the case of Encarta, the date of origin is given as early 17th century, but I would treat that with some suspicion. In any case, I think we can do better than simply shrug.
There’s an interesting clue in Charles Mackay’s Dictionary of Lowland Scotch, where under the head-word tift, we read that tip is “a slang word for money given to a servant as a small gratuity to procure drink or otherwise” (emphasis mine). Mackay goes on to assert that “No English or Scottish etymologist has succeeded in tracing these words [tift, tiff, tip] to their origins,” but after suggesting a couple of (to me) unconvincing possibilities, he offers up tiff “a drink” as a corruption of tipple — and clearly also connected to tipsy . Now if a tip was originally connected with procuring drink (as also evidenced by the more obvious French and German equivalents of the term, pour-boire and trinkgeld), I think we’re definitely onto something!
But haven’t we just traded one problem for another? What’s the origin of tipple, after all? It doesn’t seem related to other European roots for “to drink”. Most of the usual suspects (e.g., Skeat) trace it back to a Germanic origin, attested in Middle English tipeler “bartender” and Norwegian tipla “to drink little and often” (now that’s my kind of verb! ;). Another source suggests the rather wilder theory that tipple < Latin tipula “a water spider” (as in tipulam agere “to play the water-spider” – that is, to be constantly drinking) . And there are other suggestions, including tip < sip; or tipple as a frequentative of tip, in reference to the continuous tipping of the glass to the lips (where likewise, tipsy may refer to the tippler’s tedious tendency to tip over under the table). Is this starting to sound nonsensically Seussical? :)
It seems pretty clear to me, then, that the origin of tip = gratuity need not be weakly reported as “origin unknown.” Far from it: we have, to my view, pretty clear evidence that it relates to drinking, though along an etymological road less traveled, and that it calls tipple and tipsy its most immediate family.
Nice, eh? I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitstaff. ;)
* I would recommend that as a new tongue-twister, but the results might be NSFW.
 Mackay, Charles. A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch. Edinburgh: The Ballantyne Press, 1888, p. 238-9.
 ———. The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe. London: N. Trübner and Co., 1877, p. 460.