English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is a customer a guest?

Q: My question is about the disappearance of “customer” and the overuse of “guest,” as in “May I help the next guest?” when you’re buying your ticket at the movies. Why is this happening?

A: We agree that “guest” is being overused these days as a euphemism for a paying customer. We don’t think of ourselves as “guests” when we fork over money to a ticket-seller at a movie theater. Generally it’s the host who pays, not the guest.

There are a couple of established uses of “guest” that we all accept. The word has long been used to mean someone paying to stay in a hotel, and many dictionaries say it can also mean a restaurant customer.

Those usages are reasonable, since it’s bed and board—not merchandise—that’s being provided.

For more than a thousand years, “guest” has meant “one who is entertained at the house or table of another,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the use of the term for a moviegoer is questionable in our opinion, though one could argue that the theater customer is being entertained at a movie house.

However, we think that calling a retail shopper a “guest” is clearly going too far, and lexicographers generally agree with us.

Here’s what some leading dictionaries include among their definitions of “guest”:

“Someone who is paying to stay at a hotel or eat in a restaurant,” from Macmillan Dictionaries online;

“a person who pays for the services of an establishment (as a hotel or restaurant),” Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.);

“one who pays for meals or accommodations at a restaurant, hotel, or other establishment; a patron,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.);

“a patron of a hotel, boarding house, restaurant, etc.” (Collins Dictionaries online);

“any paying customer of a hotel, restaurant, etc.,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

Obviously, the editors of those dictionaries didn’t have retail customers in mind. Nevertheless, Google searches show that companies—including Target, Toys “R” Us, Kwik-Trip, and 7-Eleven—all refer to their customers as “guests.”

Somehow we doubt the shoppers think of themselves that way—unless the merchandise is being given away.

The word “guest” is part of an interesting history. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, it ultimately comes from the same source as “host,” and “their family tree diverged in ancient times.”

Their common ancestor was a prehistoric Indo-European word reconstructed as ghostis (stranger).

This is the ancestor of the Latin hostis (enemy, stranger), the Greek xenos (guest, stranger), and the old Germanic sources that gave English the word “guest.”

Thus English words including “hospitable,” “hostile,” “xenophobia,” “hotel,” and “hospital” (as well as “guest” and “host”) are all derived from the ancient notion of receiving a stranger.

The Old English “guest” (written gæst, giest, etc.) was recorded as early as 725 in Beowulf. Originally it could mean either a stranger or a guest—that is, someone who was owed hospitality.

In the 1200s, the OED says, it was used to mean “a temporary inmate of a hotel, inn, or boarding house.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The South English Legendary, a medieval collection of lives of the saints compiled around 1290 (some scholars date it to 1265).

At around the same time (1290 or thereabouts), “host” entered English by way of Old French with the sense of someone who entertains another, either in his home or at a public inn.

(Since we never pass up a chance to quote P.G. Wodehouse, here goes: “I entered the saloon bar and requested mine host to start pouring,” from Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934.)

In the early 20th century, people began using “guest” to mean something like a visiting performer, as in “guest artist,” “guest soloist,” “guest conductor,” “guest star,” “guest speaker,” and so on.

Then of course there’s “guest host,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms but is familiar to fans of Saturday Night Live.

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