Daily Archives: July 12, 2011


You may most likely hear this word in some expression of exasperation: “The whole economy there is lubricated by baksheesh! Everywhere you go around there, to get anything done, you have to slip them a buck behind the back! Sheesh! You’d think baksheesh was the sound of the printing press producing all those extra banknotes!”

Well, yes, there are some places where it’s a good tip to know that one is expected to give a good tip, as it were. But remember that, just as tip is not actually an acronym for “to improve performance” (no, it’s not; it’s not an acronym at all), baksheesh doesn’t come with performance guarantees, either… aside from a reasonable guarantee of lack of obstruction. You could think of it as the sound of a latch clicking (bak) and a sliding door opening (sheesh).

But it can also be a payment of alms – in India and Pakistan, the beggars cry “Baksheesh, baba!” – and a thanks or a veneration, for giving the opportunity to gain merit by giving alms or for the simple act of performing one’s little job (as a waiter, doorman, parking attendant, or what have you). It can be outright bribery of an official, too, of course, but it can also be subtler – a donation to a police charity, earning a bumper sticker that might make the boys in blue more favourably disposed, for instance. Generally it’s money, but I suppose other things given could count (perhaps baklava or hashish?).

Just as the act has various forms and valences, so too the word has a few different forms. The pronunciation is always the same – with that mechanical clack and slide like a machine that requires lubrication – but it has been spelled in English as baksheesh, bakhshish, bakshish, bakshis, buckshish, backsheesh (a spelling I saw just today in the cartoon Alex, www.alexcartoon.com/cartoons/5749_12072011.gif), and even (a couple of centuries ago) buxees. And the word has other spellings in other languages – bakchich, Backschisch, and spellings in the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing everywhere, either: in Balkan languages, it generally just means “tip” the same way we mean “tip” in Canada, and in Greek it can mean simply “gift”.

“Gift” is probably the best word for it anyway. Not just because you really can’t expect much in return (as opposed to the rather negative things you may expect in its absence in some contexts), but because it comes from Persian for “gift, present”, from a verb meaning “give”.

Just incidentally, there’s a Punjabi name Bakshi that comes from the Persian for “paymaster”. But that’s not the source of the family name of famed animation director Ralph Bakshi; his is a Krymchak (Turkic Crimean) Jewish name derived from the Turkish word for “garden”. Well, every garden needs a little seed money to keep it animated, too… but to be of the Bakshis or even just Bakshi-ish has nonetheless nothing to do with baksheesh.


This is, of course, what Kate loses at the end of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

No, no, no, look again! There is that a in there! You see that it makes the heart of the word like an incomplete raging. And in the pronunciation it not only adds an unstressed vowel (compared with virginity) but changes the quality of the first vowel, so that it is no longer a syllabic /r/ (or something near) but becomes an actual /I/ as in spirit.

Spirit, of course, is something Kate has in abundance in that play. She may be a virgin, but she is not blushing or modest. Virgin comes from Latin virgo, probably related to virga “branch”, but Kate’s not a tender shoot – nope, she’s a real switch, a stick to whip with. But take a little piece of wood and dip it in the right solution and you will get a match, which can really ignite something – and Kate meets her match, and the sparks do indeed fly.

Kate, you see, is a virago quite surely – virago meaning a bold woman: in its approbative sense, a warrior woman, but in its negative sense a termagant, a shrew. A woman who does not behave as was thought womanly at the time the word came about (and, honestly, ideas about what is appropriately feminine behaviour do persist today). And a word for the quality of being a virago – a rare word, to be sure, but it’s in Oxford – is viraginity. It’s a nice enough word in itself; the a adds balance, putting the g in the middle, and the v pairs with the y to counterpoise the verticals in the middle. And the whole thing stays at the tip of your tongue – while virago bounces to the back and so on down.

But whence virago? Has it to do with vinegar? No. With rage, with vigour? No. And don’t even ask about that popular drug that many men like to use (why would I want to snag on spam filters?). Nor is it the name of a Shakespearean character. It comes, in fact, from vir, “man”; it means a woman who is manlike. It was also used in early English translations of the Bible for the name Adam gave Eve: “And Adam seide… This schal be clepid virago, for she is takun of man.” No branch here; we’re talking about a rib.

Well, fair enough: Petruchio takes quite a bit of ribbing – and beating – from Kate in the course of the play. But the two are really just two sides of a coin, made for each other… she may seem to surrender, but watch if he does not come under her thumb in the long run. Does she really lose her viraginity, or does she put it in trust in order to gain interest – and leverage?