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Why is it called tipping?

The origin of the term “tipping” to refer to giving money to service workers like waiters, taxi drivers, barbers, etc. dates back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England.

Etymology of “Tipping”

The most widely accepted theory for the origin of the term is that it comes from the phrase “To Insure Promptness” or “To Insure Prompt Service.” The story goes that wealthy patrons of coffeehouses and taverns in 17th century England would often drop coins in a box before receiving service, ensuring that the waiters knew they would receive a good tip if the service was fast and adequate. This eventually got shortened to just “tipping.”

Some other theories for where “tipping” came from include:

  • An old European custom where hosts would secretly give sums of money (tips) to servants of guests
  • “Tippling house” meaning a place to drink alcohol. Tipping arose from giving coins to get better service at these establishments.
  • A French term “pourboire” meaning “for drink.” Tip may have derived from the first letter of this slang term.

However, the “To Insure Promptness” theory remains the most accepted origin today.

History of Tipping in America

While tipping originated in Europe, it became much more widespread and customary in the United States in the 19th century. There are a few major factors that contributed to this:

  • Abolition of slavery – With the end of slavery after the Civil War, many newly freed slaves got service jobs. Customers were expected to tip them instead of rely on slave labor.
  • Influx of European immigrants – Many European immigrants came to America having been accustomed to the tipping customs of their home countries.
  • Railroad and riverboat travel – People traveling on railroads and riverboats needed porters, waiters, attendants, etc. and tipping ensured good service.

By the early 20th century, tipping was firmly entrenched in American culture and spreading to new services like barber shops and beauty parlors.

Arguments For and Against Tipping

Despite its widespread acceptance, tipping remains a controversial practice in America. Here are some pros and cons:

Arguments in Favor of Tipping

  • Allows good service to be directly rewarded
  • Gives customers power over the dining/service experience
  • Lets customers support service workers directly
  • Incentivizes better service from workers

Arguments Against Tipping

  • Arbitrary and inconsistent
  • Can encourage discrimination
  • Creates pay instability for workers
  • Awkward social expectations around etiquette
  • Allows employers to avoid paying fair wages

Tipping Practices Around the World

Tipping customs vary enormously around the world. Here’s a look at some tipping practices globally:

Country Tipping Practices
United States Tipping is standard practice across services. 15-20% for restaurants.
Canada Similar tipping culture to the US. 15-20% typical for restaurants.
Britain Tipping less common. 10-15% is typical when done.
Australia Tipping not expected or common in Australia.
Japan Tipping considered insulting. Never done.
India Tip only for great service. 10% average restaurant tip.
South Africa 10-15% tipping customary at restaurants.

As shown, tipping practices can differ dramatically across the globe based on cultural norms and customs.

The Future of Tipping

While firmly established in many countries like the US, tipping culture is evolving in the 21st century. Some developments include:

  • Higher tip recommendations and expectations (often 20%+ now)
  • Tip prompts on payment systems and apps becoming more common
  • A shift away from cash tips to digital tipping
  • More tipping for services beyond restaurants, like coffee shops, ride shares, etc.
  • Minimum wage hikes reducing dependence on tips for basic income
  • A small “no tipping” movement to pay service workers higher wages instead

It remains to be seen how exactly tipping culture will progress in the coming decades. But it continues to be a hotly debated practice.


Tipping originated in Europe but became much more entrenched in America due to factors like slavery abolition, immigration, and new forms of travel. Arguments around tipping continue around whether the custom is fair, discriminatory, or necessary. Tipping practices vary enormously globally based on cultural attitudes and norms. In the 21st century, tipping culture continues to evolve with new technologies and services. The origins of the very term “tipping” itself remain contested, but the most compelling theory points to it being an abbreviation of “To Insure Promptness.” Regardless of its exact origins, tipping remains a firmly embedded social custom in many countries, for better or worse.