5

I'm living in Belgium, very near to the border with France. I'm 51 years old.

I just had a discussion with a younger Walloon colleague (about 35 years old) about the French word for "waitress".
My colleague claimed the correct word being "serveuse".
I'm convinced the correct word is "serviteuse", because the word "serveuse" is nothing more than a hooker!
For that, I base myself on a story of my mother (83 years old), who worked in France (up to 1977), and who has told me that, during an incident, somebody had called her coworkers "ces serveuses" (instead of "serviteuses"), which meant that those coworkers were insulted, you can imagine the reactions!

However, when I look at "larousse.fr", the word "serviteuse" seems not to exist, and the word "serveuse" seems to be the innocent word for "waiter".

Does this mean that I'm mistaking? Is there a difference between Belgian French and French from France on this matter? Does it mean that "larousse.fr" is wrong (and in that case, what's a better online alternative)? ...?

5
  • 6
    Never heard "serveuse" used as "hooker", never once. I'm 47, living in north-east France. Also never heard "serviteuse", at all. Apr 19 at 12:10
  • 1
    "serviteuse" would be the feminine of "serviteur", not "serveur" Apr 19 at 12:59
  • @TeleportingGoat: I don't think so: I remember vaguely from secondary school that the correct words were "serviteuse" and "serveur" (but obviously that's quite some time ago).
    – Dominique
    Apr 19 at 13:01
  • @TeleportingGoat One might have thought the feminine of 'serviteur' would be 'servitrice' :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 19 at 16:50
  • @LukeSawczak From Latin servitor/osa, so -eur -euse in French. See BDL.
    – None
    Apr 19 at 17:53

2 Answers 2

8

There are some words that should not be mixed up.

Serveur (fem: serveuse):

A. − [À propos d'une pers.]
1- Homme ou femme chargé de servir les clients dans un bar, dans un restaurant. Synon. garçon, barman. (TLF)

and Serviteur:

subst. masc.
A. −
1 - Celui qui a des devoirs, des obligations envers un souverain, un État, une collectivité, qui est à leur service.
B. − Vieilli. Employé attaché à la personne ou à la maison de son employeur. Synon. domestique (TLF)

The feminine form of serviteur is servante:

A. − [À propos d'une pers.]
1 - a) Jeune fille, femme employée comme domestique. (TLF)

In France serviteuse is never used as the feminine of serveur. Serviteuse is sometimes used for servante (so as the feminine form of serviteur) and most often nowadays in meaning A1 in the TLF. (Celui qui a des devoirs, des obligations...).

Apart from the wiktionnaire, I could only find serviteuse in the Dictionnaire historique de l'ancien langage françois, ou Glossaire de la langue françoise depuis son origine jusqu'au siècle de Louis XIV by Lacurne that was published in the 18th century, with an example from a 17th century text (Mémoires de Messieurs Bellièvre et de Sillery)

Serviteuse. Servante: « Voila la serviteuse qui nous vint dire que quelqu'un estoit à la porte et pour entrer ou sortir.

Having seen it in Lacurne I could trace it back to the Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500). None of the editions of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie mentions it.

I've never heard serviteuse used for a domestic servant in my lifetime.
The only contemporary use I know of serviteuse used for servante, so as the feminine form of serviteur, is in the meaning A1 in the TLF. (Celui qui a des devoirs, des obligations...), and it is very often used in a humoristic way. Such as in Votre humble serviteuse (standing for votre humble servante) (Votre humble serviteuse in the wiktionnaire).

Cette semaine, votre humble serviteuse Élise Lustrée (Charlie Hebdo, 01/05/2020).

I expect that if a French native in a café said serviteuse in order to draw the waitress's attention, it might be felt as offensive.

Like Romain Valeri in their comment I have never heard serveuse used for a prostitute. But I know what a servante-montante is although the phrase is very rarely used:

Serveuse de bar ou de restaurant qui se prostitue plus ou moins occasionnellement sur son lieu de travail. (Wiktionnaire).

3

In France, at least, “serveur” (masculine) and “serveuse” (feminine) are perfectly normal words for a waiter in a restaurant, café or similar establishment. I can't see how it could possibly be considered offensive.

This is a relatively recent word. Littré (1873–1878, but old-fashioned and very reluctant to consider new words) doesn't have it (except in the now mostly defunct sense of the person who plays the ball first in some sports). The Trésor de la langue française doesn't date it in this sense, but dates the feminine serveuse to 1892 and not quite yet in the modern sense. So it's plausible that different French-speaking countries have evolved different words for serveur/serveuse. However, I haven't found any online dictionary that suggests that these words have a different meaning or are unused elsewhere.

Serveuse-montante” is a slang word that has largely disappeared and that does (did) mean a waitress who is also a prostitute. However, referring to someone as a “serveuse” cannot possibly imply “serveuse-montante”, since “serveuse” is the normal word.

Serviteur” used to refer mostly to a personal servant, synonymous with “domestique”, but this meaning has largely disappeared together with the profession. Nowadays this word is mostly used in expressions like “serviteur de l'État” or “serviteur de Dieu”, referring to service to an organization or a cause. The corresponding feminine word is usually “servante”, with mostly the same meanings. This word tends to be deprecated, and in modern French the rising feminine form is serviteuse (competing with other possible forms: serviteure, servitrice), but these are variants of a word that's someone uncommon in the first place. Calling someone else is a “serviteur” or “servante” or the other feminine variants would be offensive because it suggests that they are your personal servant rather than someone doing their job. But there is no sexual connotation.

Wikitionnaire indicates that “serviteur” can mean waiter in some West African countries, which would open the potential for “serveur” or perhaps only “serveuse” to be offensive in at least parts of French-speaking West Africa. I have no personal knowledge to make me trust or distrust this, but I can't find any use of the word in that sense online, so I find it doubtful. Conversely, searches for “serveuse” in those countries finds plenty of uses with the meaning waitress, and commonly associated with “serveur”. So it doesn't seem that “serveuse” implies prostitute in West African either.

My conclusion is that you or your mother is either misremembering the word, or that the word got misheard, or that it wasn't this word that caused offense but something else that was said or done.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.