Groucho Marx: Do they allow tipping on the boat?
Steward: Oh, yes, sir!
Groucho: Have you got two fives?
Steward: Yes, sir!
Groucho: Well then, you won't need the 10 cents I was going to give you.
From "A Night at the Opera"
Few are as brave--or, if you prefer, as arrogant--as Groucho. For most of us, tipping is something we do, but try not to think about. It especially doesn't lend itself to weighty considerations at this time of year, when there are presents to buy and parties to attend. Yet this is also the month of the seasonal tip and a time when many families dine out together. Herewith, some advice and background on the often-obscure subject of who should get what and when.
Informal accounts of the word tip say it comes from 18th-Century England, where the elite spent most of their time swilling coffee and raising a ruckus. At the door of each cafe was a little box, with the slogan on the side: "To Insure Promptitude." The initials, TIP, quickly became an acronym.
One wonders, though, how the servers knew which customers had put in which coins. The story seems too neat to be true. A better theory holds that the word comes from the Dutch tippen, meaning to tap and referring to the sound of a coin being clicked against a glass in order to get the waiter's attention.
A third conjecture is that tip derives from the Latin stips, meaning gift. And cynics will love the conclusion offered by the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: The term tip , it says, is "rogues cant" or "medieval street talk" for "hand it over."
Letitia Baldrige, author of "The Complete Guide to Executive Manners" and the revised edition of "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette," has plenty of ideas on whom and how to tip during the encroaching holiday season. But first, a warning: "This is how things are done in New York. Washingtonians should feel blessed that life in their city is simpler and less expensive."
Actually, listening to Baldrige would disillusion the most committed fan of Manhattan. "If you live in a cooperative or a condominium, you've had it," she says. "There's the doormen and the super and the back-elevator men. . . . When there are 25 people working in the building, you tip them all, even if you never see them. They're all working for the building and they all deserve it. Their salaries are very low, and the Christmas tips mean a tremendous amount in how long they stay on the job. In a small apartment building, the minimum tip for the super is $25. In a nicer building, it's anywhere from $50 to $100."
Next up is the hairdresser. The holiday tip here, Baldrige says, is determined by the poshness of the establishment and how often you go. "If you have a strong personal relationship--and by that I don't mean sexual--but if they're your confidant, soothe you and tell you you're wonderful when no one else does, they deserve to be tipped for it. Most women in New York give $25 to $50, or a nice handsome present. This is a mark of friendship, of appreciation."
At this point, you might want to go to the bank and get some more cash. Back with us? OK, on to the parking lot. In New York, should you be so nervy as to have a car, it's customary to tip the lot attendants at both your job and your home. Otherwise, they might not have the incentive to protect your wheels.
Don't forget the newspaper deliverer and the garbage men. In fact, don't ignore anyone who makes your life easier. The receptionist who saves your messages. The plumber who kept you from being flooded out late one summer eve. If it seems too crude to hand over cash, Baldrige notes that a gift will often convey the idea--a scarf, a tie, perfume, chocolates, wine.
How much does this add up to? For a middle-class couple--say, $75,000 a year combined income--she estimates $150 to $200 in seasonal tips. "And that's for a young couple with simple services. That's living modestly. I'd hate to tell you what we have to spend."
Tipping is a way of life in New York, and frequently it functions there as the fancy equivalent of a bribe. (An early use of tip was in the phrase: "He will stand the tip," meaning a corruptible person.) In the less-stressed, less-complicated climes of Washington, the dependency on services isn't as overwhelming--and neither is the amount of seasonal tipping.
Nevertheless, Baldrige's final point bears considering: "Tipping keeps the wheels greased. It's recognition of good service and hope that the service will continue. It's saying, 'Thank you for making my life less complicated,' and 'Please continue. Don't stop.' "