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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

server

(1990’s | “waiter,” “waitress,” “bartender”)

A word that has vaulted into prevalence. “Server” was not rare before 1980; it had a number of specialized meanings (e.g., in tennis, in the Catholic Church) and a couple of general ones. One was associated with kitchens: a serving tool. It could be the trowel you use to cut the cake, the plate you put the cake on, or the cart you use to wheel the cake into the dining room. Its other general meaning came from legalese, as in the term “process server.” Always unpopular, he was the one who had to track you down and deliver your subpoena. (Falsely claiming to have served papers was called “sewer service.” Nice, huh?) A “time-server” was a drudge, someone who showed up but did the bare minimum.

You did see the word applied to waiters and bartenders in the seventies and early eighties, but not very often, and it generally had a twist. One who circulated trays at a cocktail party was more likely to be called a server than a restaurant waitress. As far as I can tell, “server” in today’s sense was commonplace by the early 1990’s, but maybe it was earlier. A Washington Post restaurant reviewer provided a helpful usage note in 1978; she defined the word as a “restaurant’s nonsexist term for waiters and waitresses.”

Once upon a time, English had lots of gender-specific terms for what you did. There was the “-er/-ess” dichotomy (shouldn’t the male version of a laundress be called a launder?), sometimes rendered as “-or/-rix.” That variant was never as popular, and indeed, you don’t hear anyone say “aviatrix” any more, but it was all the rage in Amelia Earhart’s day. (“Dominatrix” soldiers on, bless it.) Then there were all the -man/-woman words (motorman, washerwoman). We tried replacing both suffixes with “person,” which sorta worked, at least some of the time. It would never occur to me to call my cousin, an expert horsewoman, a horseperson, although I might call her a “horse person,” by analogy with “cat person.”

The scramble began in the 1960’s and 1970’s to find terms that would refer impartially to a male or female practitioner of whatever it might be. And this search resulted in many different solutions. Sometimes one or the other form won out, as in “actor,” which is now commonly, if not universally, used to cover thespians of all genders. At least in unisex hair salons, “stylist” beat out “barber.” In a few lucky cases, we could get by with the stem: “chairman” and “chairwoman” became simply “chair” in academese and businese, as it had always been in politics (“The chair recognizes . . .”). And sometimes we just hauled off and adopted a whole new word. Like “driver” for “motorman,” “flight attendant” for “stewardess,” or “server” for “waiter.”

We can all be grateful that “waitperson” didn’t catch on, and I also remember hearing the slightly ominous “waitron” a few times in the 1980’s. Now, when you are seated in a restaurant, the host or hostess — now there’s an example of a term that never got neutered at all — says invariably, “Your server will be with you shortly.” True, it’s a word that restaurant employees use more than customers, but it has become the polite, non-loaded term for the one who brings your food.

The rise of “server” in computerese started a little earlier, but since computerese hadn’t intruded too much into everyday vocabulary by the early 1990’s, the two senses got settled around the same time. Its use has always struck me as a little odd. O.k., it’s the thing that serves the data to the user, or the remote computer. But it feels much more like inert storage space than an active being that brings you things. Sure, the server will serve me the file, if I give it the password, specify the principal ingredients, and tell it where the kitchen is. (A web server makes a better analogy, because all you have to do is ask — click — and it delivers your page.) But a network server is more like a grouchy turnkey than a cheerful waitress.

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