Is a tip just a bribe?

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet then surely a bribe by any other name would be as dodgy.

Australians like to think of themselves as being honest and reliable in their dealings with each other. (To be fair, this is likely to be the case in most places.)

Underlying notions of ourselves is the idea that ‘Australian culture’ is itself based on fundamental principles, such as fairness and the rule of law, which not only reflect how we think of ourselves, but also protect us from the unscrupulous few that seek to take advantage when the opportunity arises.

But are there occasions when we are just as dishonest as those we assert to despise?

Bribery is generally thought of as immoral and inconsistent with our ideas of who we are. Not only does it give unfair advantages to those with means instead of merit, it also disadvantages those who are deserving. As such, bribery is something that public and private institutions have worked hard at removing from society.

Yet tipping exists and it escapes the moral condemnation that bribery attracts. But is tipping really that different from bribery? They both involve under-the-table cash for something extra. The main difference appears to be that bribes are paid at the beginning of a dodgy deal, whereas as tips are paid at the end.

While this distinction may hold true today, this has not always been the case. In 18th century England, most historians (that is, people who’ve looked into the history of tipping) argue that people during this period tipped before any service or even as they arrived at the venue.

Apparently people would attach a note to some coins with the phrase, ‘to insure promptitude’ and give it to a staff member. Alternatively, some establishments even had a box on the counter, which had the same phrase on it, that people would contribute to if they wanted service in a timely manner.

This phrase, ‘to insure promptitude’, is where many suggest the word tip came from (i.e. ‘tip’ is an acronym). I would disagree with this phrase being the origin of the word tip for a few reasons. One of which is that origin stories that are so clean-cut are often made up*. However, it does appear (after looking at historical records) that people did tip before service – i.e. so that they actually got service, even if it meant the guy next to them was ignored as a result. Only some time later did it become customary to tip after service.

Tipping looks a lot more like bribery now, doesn’t it?

Of course, even if tipping is akin to bribery, its not the type of bribery we usually think about when the word bribe is used, like when local councils approve development applications to those who have made considerable ‘donations’ or when police officers ‘look the other way’ so they can line their pockets. When it comes to tipping, all we are talking about is getting faster and/or better service. But if you’re the one who has been left waiting for your dinner or left standing outside a nightclub because someone else thought to leave a bribe … I mean, a tip, then I expect the similarities between tips and bribes will become much more apparent.

So even if tipping doesn’t threaten to undermine the credibility of important social and political institutions, it doesn’t mean that the distinction between bribery and tipping is clear. It can seem like a very murky distinction, at times, indeed.

Maybe in the instances that we don’t want to, or can’t, get rid of bribery we call it by another name, such as tipping, so our collective conscience is clear and our identity of being ‘fair’ Australians remains in tact?


*Also, the grammar-Nazis among you would have noticed that ‘insure’, in this instance, is technically incorrect and should read ‘ensure’. So, if this phrase was the beginning of it all, it either means nobody noticed this mistake for over 200 years or the phrase was made up after-the-fact in order to create an origin story.

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5 Responses to Is a tip just a bribe?

  1. Mac says:

    My unwillingess to tip is reinforcing societal norms of fairness? fantastic!

    meanwhile the TIP theory sounds like a classic ‘backronym’ to me.

    • tippingoz says:

      I agree, I think its a backronym also.

      There are a couple of other, less popular, theories out there about where the word ‘tip’ came from. Some say it evolved from the Latin word ‘stips’, meaning ‘to give’. Others have said its short for the word tipple, meaning drink, or ‘to drink’. In this case, the argument is that tip means something like drink money (so the waiter can get drunk presumably).

  2. Kim says:

    Is a tip just a bribe?

    I don’t think a tip is a bribe. The words are even spelt differently and aren’t readily recognised as synonyms.

    On the backronym I agree that it does appear dodgy. But couldn’t the word “insure” have been used to mean ensure in its current sense?

    Does it matter if tipping in its original format was more like bribery? I’m not sure it does really. Which came first anyway? The tip or the bribe? We need a word historian.

    It seems as though the two practices diverged at some point with bribes being tarnished with the naughty brush and tipping tarnished with an american brush. Are bribes always such a bad thing?

    I am stopping now as I am just posting questions and not providing any constructive answers. I could probably* provide better responses in person.

    *Guarantee void in Victoria

    • tippingoz says:

      Re the ensure/insure thing, I had thought a similar thing at first. I played word historian guy for a day and it seems like the two words were as distinct then as they are today. Its possible that either word was appropriate at the time, but, to me, this seems unlikely.

      Re the tip/bribe dilemma, I’m not sure. Bribery is probably as old as civilisation (and has gone by many names). Further, bribery takes many forms, which do not necessarily stem from one original form, and I was just suggesting that tipping might be considered one of those forms in certain instances.

  3. xxxx says:

    Tipping really sucks. No need to argue if it is the same thing as bribery or not, it is an awful custom regardless.

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