Word Bites — From servitude to greeting, the story of “Servus”

When starting off in learning languages, learners would tend to take two different starter paths — learning the greetings, and learning the profanities. Today we are talking about the former, one which has a rather interesting history.

While I have dabbled here and there in German before coming to Germany to study, I realised down here in Bavaria, there is another interesting greeting used, in addition to words like Hallo, Guten Tag, or even, Grüß Gott. This word is, Servus.

At first, one may think of it as just another greeting, but in fact, this greeting transcends language boundaries. This includes languages like Serbian (in places like Zagreb), and Romanian (in the central and western part of Romania). You could hear this greeting in places across Central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Ukraine.

But what sounds like an innocent greeting, hides a rather interesting etymology. For one, you might realise that the greeting sounds like the word “serve”. And you would be right, as Servus can directly find its roots in the Latin language as, well, servus, meaning “servant” or “slave”. Other words finding their origins from this word include “serf”, meaning “peasant” or “commoner” in a feudalist society.

However, this is not quite the full picture. Servus is just one element of an entire Latin phrase servus humillimus, domine spectabilis. This quite literally means “[your] most humble servant, [my] noble lord”, which gives connotations of rather extreme power dynamics between speaker and listener. However, in today’s speech, such a power dynamic has been long gone. No subservience is implied anymore in today’s usage, which formerly rang a bell of “at your service”.

Other etymologies point towards a more religious origin, particularly, servus [humillimus] Christi, or “[a most humble] servant of Christ”. This traces back to a strong Catholic tradition in places like Southern Germany, and could be intended to serve as a similar meaning to Grüß Gott (Greetings to God).

However, I could not find possible sources of spread, or how its meaning came to be today. What we do know of is, the original phrase got shortened along the way, contracting to what we hear now. Perhaps its influence spread along the lines of the Roman empire, but I would need to do more digging to support this hypothesis.

Interestingly, this is not the only greeting which has rather similar etymologies. Another example includes the Italian greeting ciao, which originated from Venetian’s s’ciavo. It has similar connotations with Servus in the past and present, but also being used as a word for “goodbye”.

Living in Germany (specifically, Bavaria) for some time now, I realise how common this particular greeting is used, and upon digging about its usage, I learned how this greeting is also known as the “Moin of the south”, Moin referring to yet another German greeting mainly used in Northern Germany, particularly in Hamburg. Perhaps over time, I would learn and grow a bit more accustomed to more bits about the colloquialisms, regional or otherwise, in German!

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