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.