English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When a waiter waits

Q: Have you ever addressed the issue of “wait tables” rather than “wait on tables”? The dropping of the preposition gives me indigestion.

A: There’s no reason to get heartburn over this. The two versions showed up around the same time in the 19th century. And the one you prefer is itself a clipped version of a longer expression that appeared in the 1500s. Here’s the story

When the usage first showed up in English, it was “wait at the table” or “wait on the table,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example (with the preposition “at”) is from The Arbor of Amitie (1568), a collection of Thomas Howell’s poetry: “Yee and ich can, if neede be than, waight at the table well.”

The first “on” example is from Glasse of Governement, a 1575 play by George Gascoigne about the Prodigal Son: “Wee should haue beene fayne to wayte on the table, and to bee contented with their leauings after supper.”

By the early 1800s, the shortened version “wait at table” was being used. The first example in the OED is from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813): “She had not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table.”

An even shorter, preposition-less version, “wait table,” appeared later in the 1800s. The earliest Oxford example is from St. Ives, a novel that Robert Louis Stevenson left unfinished when he died in 1894:

We had a good many pleasant passages as she waited table or warmed my bed for me.”

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of “wait table,” including this caption on an engraving in The Eccentric Traveler, an anonymous 1826 novel published in London: “James waiting Table at Don Gallina’s.”

Here’s another example, from The Laird of Fife, an 1828 novel by an anonymous author: “By the bye, didn’t you wait table there last Tuesday?”

And this one is from The Adventures of Barney Mahoney (1832), a novel written by Marianne Nicholson Croker and published under her husband’s name, Thomas Crofton Croker:

“Two maids an’ a man it is she keeps, an’ you’re to be the man, Barney,—that’s if yees gets it; an’ to clane plate, an’ knives, an’ shoes, an’ windy’s, an’ run errants, an’ wait table, an’ go out wid de carriage, an’ —”

All the examples we’ve seen so far—the longer as well as the shorter—use the singular “table,” probably because the expression had been used up until this time in reference to a domestic servant waiting at a single table in a home.

The two plural expressions you’ve asked about, “wait on tables” and “wait tables,” didn’t appear until well into the 1800s.

The earliest example we’ve found for “wait on tables” is in the transcript of an 1837 debate in Cincinnati between Alexander Campbell and the Rev. John B. Purcell about the Roman Catholic religion:

“The apostles exercised various functions—I admit it. But they substituted the deacons to wait on tables, and distribute the alms, so do their successors; Christ gave them powers adequate to every emergency.”

And here’s a more worldly example from an 1884 issue of New Peterson magazine, an American periodical intended for women: “How was I to know that gentlemen in white gloves ever wait on tables?”

Finally, this is from an 1894 issue of the Methodist Magazine: “Since you like so well to wait on tables, I’ll set you at that, though I doubt you are swift-footed enough for a waiter.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the “on”-less “wait tables” is from Memoir of Jane Martin and Her Little Brother (1843), a novel written anonymously by “A Lady”:

“She made no reply, but in answer to my asking what attendance I could have, she said that her daughter had been accustomed to attend her lodgers, and added in an under tone, ‘but perhaps she was too godly now to wait tables or tidy rooms.’ ”

This example comes from a July 3, 1879, advertisement in the New York Herald: “Smart boy—wait tables—make himself useful [in] restaurants, and old man to carry signs.”

And this one appeared in a help-wanted ad from the Feb. 7, 1895, issue of the Omaha World Herald: “Wanted—boys to wait tables for their board. Webster hotel, 16th and Howard.”

Nowadays, when waiters do their table-waiting in restaurants, the plural “tables” is more common.

Here are the results of a few Google searches: “wait tables,” 225,000 hits; “wait at table,” 77,900; “wait on tables,” 72,300; “wait table,” 28,900, and “wait at tables,” 23,100.

We’ve found examples for all these usages cited without reservation in the “wait” entries of standard dictionaries, though none of the dictionaries include all of them.

In Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2005), Christopher Davies describes “wait on tables” as American English and “wait at tables” as British. That’s generally true, but not always, especially in the UK.

This is from a Dec. 13, 2003, column in the Telegraph (London): “Ben hasn’t had to babysit for slave wages. Or wait on tables for even less.”

And this is from a June 27, 2014, article in the Times (London): “Waiting on tables may be a more lucrative career for the better looking, with 40 per cent of British diners admitting to tipping attractive waiting staff double what they normally would.”

As for the etymology here, the verb “wait” ultimately comes from old Germanic words meaning to watch or guard. When it first appeared in English writing around 1200 in Vices and Virtues, a Middle English religious treatise, it meant to spy upon or lie in wait for.

It took nearly two centuries for “wait” to take on the usual contemporary sense of to remain in place or delay doing something.

The earliest known example is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): Now certes lord, to abiden your persence / Heere in this temple of the goddesse clemence / We haue been waytynge al this fourtenyght.”

And as we’ve noted above it took almost two centuries more for the verb “wait” to mean, in the words of the OED, “To serve as an attendant at table; to hand food and drink to persons at a meal.”

The noun “waiter,” which has had a similar evolution, meant one who watches when it showed up in the Wycliffe Bible around 1382.

It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that it took on the sense of “a man employed, at inns, hotels, eating-houses, or similar places, to wait upon the guests (esp. during meals),” according to the OED.

We’ll end with this modern-sounding example from The Parson’s Wedding, a 1664 comedy by the English dramatist Thomas Killigrew: “The sum is six pounds, and be pleased to remember the Waiters.”

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