The Grammarphobia Blog

Service with a smile

Q: I’ve noticed that people now use the verb “service” in place of “serve,” as in “How may I service you?” Doesn’t “service” refer to fixing an appliance or performing a sexual act?

A: I haven’t noticed this usage myself, but another reader emailed me about it a year or so ago.

In fact, the original meaning of the verb “service” was the one you’re hearing now: to serve, to provide with a service, to be of service.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1893 and appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Catriona: “If I am to service ye the way that you propose, I’ll lose my lifelihood.”

The word gained another meaning in 1926: to perform routine maintenance or repair work on a car or other equipment (as in, “It’s time to service the lawnmower”).

In 1942, the verb took on another meaning: to pay interest on a debt (as in “the company can no longer service its debts”). It later came to mean to process a debt (“the bank transferred the mortgage and doesn’t service it anymore”).

And in 1961 the verb “service” was first recorded as meaning to provide sexual services (as in “the stallion serviced the mare”).

This usage, according to the OED, comes from an earlier meaning of the verb “serve,” which was used in reference to male animals, especially stallions and bulls, and meant “to cover (the female).”

The OED‘s first citation for this use of “serve” is from a book on husbandry published in 1577: “At halfe a yeere old they [boars] are able to serve a sowe.”

In the Stevenson quotation from 1893, a person is the object being serviced; in the other OED citations for that sense (to be of service, etc.), the object being serviced is not a person but a thing (a town, a trade route, a region, and so on).

These days, most of us don’t speak of “servicing” other people, probably because of the word’s sexual connotations.

Though the sexual meaning of the verb “service” was first used in reference to animals, it later was (and still is) used, especially in ribald jokes, about people.

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