Origin and Meaning of the Word Lagniappe

Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” was published 14 Jan 1964 in Look magazine. Ruby Bridges is depicted walking to school in New Orleans on the first day of desegregation, protected by United States Marshals. On the wall are red streaks from a thrown “lagniappe”.

In 1889 Mark Twain published his memoirs of life before the Civil War, Life On The Mississippi, in which he mentioned an “itching palm” practice of French-speaking Louisiana that was called “lagniappe“:

It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop—or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know—he finishes the operation by saying—

‘Give me something for lagniappe.’

The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor—I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely. When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans—and you say, ‘What, again?—no, I’ve had enough;’ the other party says, ‘But just this one time more—this is for lagniappe.’

Twain tells us that “give me something” was like the servant saying I’m stuck in the middle, where’s my cut. And the person confronted was expected to prop up that poor servant and always respond.

Such power-structure and framing is very important to consider fully.

In today’s context, it’s commonly assumed that people wouldn’t outright demand a little extra, a lagniappe, as it may seem audacious or impolite. The image of someone extending their hand and saying, “give me something,” is met with disbelief. However, the reality contradicts this assumption. There’s a prevailing expectation for additional compensation or gratuity, and not meeting this expectation is viewed as the mistreatment of service providers (ignoring systemic mistreatment that invokes unsustainable practices of gratuities).

It’s bizarre, because from a historical perspective the idea of doling out small gratuities instead of meaningful change often suggests a system of gross injustices (e.g. here’s a drop of sugar to make being a slave easier to swallow).

Although some presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, provided their enslaved workers with a small “gratuity,” this did not change the fact that they were legal property, owned by some of the most powerful men in American history.

Now, let’s bring it back to the contemporary context. Imagine buying a couch or a new car and expecting a little extra, a lagniappe, as part of the deal. It’s not just about the tangible benefit; the demand for gifts represents a subtle negotiation of power dynamics in relationships. Whether it’s a discounted price or a set of nice seat covers, there’s an unspoken expectation of symbolic reciprocity. This intertwining of historical precedent and modern consumer interactions highlights the nuanced representation of power in various relationships.

All gifts, no matter how small, carry with them a responsibility and an obligation. And while we may try to mitigate those responsibilities and obligations with social codes of our own devising, we can’t truly escape them.

The people who hold power, typically use methods to get more.

We see in Twain’s written memoir of New Orleans how a child/servant is rewarded using token value to those who are doing the service for someone else. The child/servant getting a lagniappe isn’t buying anything as a customer of a shop any more than a waiter getting a tip would be eating the food they are meant to be serving.

That reveals the strong connection with a very racist practice we all know and are sadly expected to engage in even today: tipping.

To be fair, the lagniappe often is called a little “extra” given to a customer by a server, whereas the tip gets called a little “extra” given to a server by a customer. At the surface, they are inverted versions of gratuity. That’s the kind of thinking where most people would stop and assume the two must always diverge.

However there are far too many collisions in the words to ignore. For example, just like tipping, when a servant protests and shows self-respect to refuse an unwanted lagniappe pushed upon them, they are refusing “good” will of someone pressed upon them. How rude? Would anyone really refuse a tip? Indeed. Would someone refuse a lagniappe? Of course it happens. Here’s a 1774 court case about a slave who died after accepting a lagniappe for the work he had done.

Couldn’t be more obvious a reference. Lagniappe as a tip, killed a man. Source: “Congo Square in New Orleans”, by Jerah Johnson, 2011. Page 8

Should the recipient have refused? He would have survived, presumably. The lawsuit accused the person giving a lagniappe as culpable for death of the recipient. If a lagniappe issued to the service worker were plain money it could have had lower liability than something other than money.

In any case, whether a man fell drunk into a bayou or he was murdered and his lagniappe stolen from him, the idea of giving a small gratuity for work provided is very logically the same practice as tipping.

People most often tip in settings where the workers are less happy than the customers. The Freudian Ernest Dichter once described the compulsion as “the need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the unequal relationship.”

Furthermore, an 1884 book called Creoles of Louisiana, George Washington Cable wrote a definition on lagniappe offering the word as petty gratuity (la ñapa — something added, bonus) that had been coined by French-speaking Blacks during Spanish rule.

…the pleasant institution of ñapa — the petty gratuity added, by the retailer, to anything bought — grew the pleasanter, drawn out into the Gallicized lagniappe.

Twain in 1889 thus anecdotally strains a meaning of this term almost beyond recognition when he briefly alleges:

If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Perhaps Twain is not to be taken literally at his word.

Replacing a thing that was lost, or restitution is hardly the same as a petty gratuity. How is replacing a hot tea spilled down your back any kind of bonus? Seems that would barely put a boiling mad customer back to where they started.

Consider the historical context of the mid-19th century in New Orleans, where, for instance, as a white patron of a restaurant with tea spilled on them, it would be absurd and reprehensible to resort to violence if a Black slave said lagniappe and presented a gesture of goodwill. But it surely happened anyway, when the angry customer demanded more (because they could, as illustrated recently in the first episode of Blue Eyed Samurai).

A customer isn’t happy about soup spilled on him. Source: NetFlix

This scenario might be challenging to fathom in today’s more enlightened reality, acknowledging the discomfort it may evoke.

Alternatively, consider the contemporary injustice embedded in “tipping” culture. If you were a Black individual born into centuries of systemic racism and violent mistreatment by America, it would be unreasonable to expect you to passively accept an unbalanced situation where, for merely serving a burger and fries, your oppressor tosses a token lagniappe without addressing the broader inequities at play. Do you take the self-defeating bonus, or refuse on grounds of self-respect and demand a fair wage (e.g. education, healthcare)?

And now for why this obscure Louisiana term mostly died out…

After the Civil War the rapid economic growth and concentration of wealth in New Orleans (second only to NYC before the war) had completely collapsed rendering their ways of life and terms of business inhumanely unworkable.

New Orleans, which had been the economic and military powerhouse of American human trafficking, fell into sharp regression and collapse after losing their war to expand slavery. Meanwhile, NYC residents and visitors continued to dramatically gain prosperity, as emancipated Americans moved outside the still horribly racist southern states for a better life. Lamar White passionately explained what it really means to grow up in Louisiana:

12 Years a Slave isn’t just the greatest film ever made about American slavery; it is, in many respects, the only film ever made about American slavery. It’s an actual bona fide masterpiece. It’s staggering, blood-curdling, and perfectly, jarringly honest in its depiction of the greatest institutionalized atrocity and criminal conspiracy in our nation’s history. […] There is no dignity in this. And as much as we may try to gloss it all over, to convince ourselves that we’re justified in presenting and marketing and incentivizing a simulacrum of plantation life, there is also no escaping it: These are concentration camps. We either preserve all of the story or we demolish all of it.

As such, NYC was a boom town even greater than ever, rapidly building diversity into widespread prosperity and talking openly about the horrible legacy of “itching palm” economics and the un-democratic and un-American concept of a worker being given a gratuity, a bonus, or “tipped” (e.g. a lagniappe if they still were in New Orleans instead of NYC).

An 1889 letter about Mark Twain’s writing puts the proper perspective on meaning of the bonus under slavery, and its relation to other unique terms for a racist habit/effect in “tipping”.

Source: American Notes and Queries, Volume 3, 1889, page 59

Nobody says brottus anymore, it’s hard to even find evidence of it, and for the likely same reasons they also shouldn’t say lagniappe. New Orleans’ practices of systemic racism lasted longer, ostensibly, so their lagniappe has lasted alongside it as well.

Here’s further exploration of what the 1889 letter writer is talking about, to clarify for everyone what Mark Twain’s casual pre-Civil War observations meant to Americans reading it at the time.

Emancipated Blacks moving into NYC predominantly were hired as waiters and related servant roles. Perhaps you were wondering why tipping originally was targeted almost entirely at waiters and hotel staff instead of dentists, teachers or plumbers? Those jobs had few or no emancipated slaves for whites to exploit. Now you know.

Perhaps no entity did more to spread the practice than the Pullman Company. George Pullman preferred hiring formerly enslaved Black men as railroad porters. He paid them as little as possible, and used tips as a subsidy. […] Across Europe, minimum-wage standards were raised, and tipping largely disappeared there.

The predominantly Black waiters of NYC led a huge strike in 1906 to end the racist practice of tipping and raise minimum wages. In 1907 France saw waiters so the same, and their efforts had far more staying power.

No more lagniappe, no more brottus, and finally no more tipping.

The American pro-democracy anti-tipping movement ran all the way up until 1915, with many laws passed outlawing tipping all across America. Then President Woodrow Wilson restarted the KKK with “America First” and all anti-tipping laws across the country were repealed within 10 years as Jim Crow and lynchings to stop Black American prosperity exploded across the country (e.g. 1921 Tulsa massacre, 1919 Elaine massacre, 1919 Chicago massacre…). If that sounds like an impressive political feat, consider at the same time the KKK by 1918 pushed absurdly racist-themed changes to the U.S. Constitution that served to criminalize being Black — passed an 18th Amendment as direct revenge for the 13th, 14th and 15th.

This issue was used instrumentally as a mandate to target those groups they already saw as enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics and African Americans. … Prohibition didn’t ‘purify’ the nation by [incarcerating non-whites en-masse on the pretext of drinking]. What it did do was foster a nationwide climate of turmoil, and this was great for organizations that benefited from people’s fears and anxieties–like the Klan. McGirr argues that the politics of Prohibition paved the way for today’s far-right nationalist movements…

Constitutional amendment. A war on immigrants, meaning non-whites, meaning Blacks (and Catholics). So yeah, the KKK quickly were able to shift the political landscape (President Wilson removed all Blacks from public office) and repealed all the anti-tipping laws being written to protect Blacks from exploitation.

The result intended was easily predictable. Poverty rates of tipped workers are nearly double other workers and three times more likely to be on food stamps. The WYNC explains that in America tipping practices have by design always targeted and undermined Black prosperity, thus reducing democratic representation.

The data show very clearly that African Americans receive less in tips than whites, and so there is a legal argument to be made that as a protected class, African American servers are getting less for doing the same work. And therefore, the institution of tipping is inherently unfair.

Study after study says the same thing, tips are racist by design.

Tips effectively facilitate wage discrimination. Black cabdrivers have historically earned less than white ones. In 2018, Eater found that white servers and bartenders nationwide earned a median pay of $7.06 an hour in tips. The median for Asian workers was $4.77. Michael Lynn, of Cornell, has contended that using tips as a means of compensating employees may violate the Civil Rights Act.

And where does money really go from those who think they individually could pay the “tipped” class into a better life? Graft, fraud and biased theft by management takes over.

In New York, restaurants get sued all the time for mismanaging, or dipping into, their employees’ tips. Mario Batali once settled a case for $5.25 million. Nobu has paid $2.5 million. Jean-Georges Vongerichten has paid $1.75 million. …“waiters had to slip the manager a twenty, or else you’d get the worst section of the restaurant, where they put European people.” …“Latino workers are especially abused.”

The Europeans don’t tip because they believe in an accountable, fair wage. Notably, nobody tips the lawyer.

Such “Test of Democracy” concepts long ago were encoded into innocent-sounding “gifting” terms to confuse those impacted by them most. In other words toxic and false aristocratic gratuity habits have for a very long time been wrapped in regional and even national terminology, but they don’t fool everyone.

Source: The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America”, by William R. Scott, 1916

Specific slavery-related terms of power and politics maybe should not be too easily confused with a phrase that was used by Mark Twain to help his readers relate to local customs: baker’s dozen.

…bakers would throw an extra loaf into orders of a dozen to avoid a flogging…

Bakers were “not trusted”, and their “extra” was seen as a form of advance restitution. Let me dive into these confusing waters even further by trying to tease apart differences between the baker who gives an extra loaf versus one who gifts an extra loaf.

They may give in terms of time, attention, advice or even objects with no specific value, where it doesn’t even have to involve a specific event. Gifting, however, is something of value (tangible or symbolic) they give related to a particular event or expectation, with consideration of the effects.

Power, control, oppression… there’s a lot more to the “extra” loaf than people talk about, know what I mean?

It’s now been over 100 years past the time that tipping should be abolished. Brottus, lagniappe, or bakers paying a tax to avoid a flogging… just call it all relative to the highly controversial economics of tipping. I mean call such troubling exchange acts what you want, it’s the history and anthropology of gifting that really helps us see why and when to stop.

…gifts are also symbolic representations of power and relationships. All gifts, no matter how small, carry with them a responsibility and an obligation. And while we may try to mitigate those responsibilities and obligations with social codes of our own devising, we can’t truly escape them.

Tipping, as well as its lesser-known counterparts like lagniappe or brottus, are forms of systemic racism where you drip something extra in a transaction as a small gesture to placate the weak, as a political act to sidestep the much larger and more meaningful obligation to be anti-racist. If I told you that when you throw a measly dollar bill, or even a thousand, at a stranger that you are undermining systems of health, education or welfare in society, would you do it?

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