Wait Lifted

Do you wait for, on, or upon someone?

For hundreds of years, linguists, grammarians, and others have argued over what word should follow “wait,” as in “I am going to wait for you,” or “wait on you,” or perhaps “wait upon you.”

Some made the distinction that “wait on you” should mean only “serve”—a “waiter” would “wait on you” in a restaurant—while someone who is “awaiting you” is “waiting for you” or “waiting upon you.”

Those “waiting for” a definitive answer will probably never get it, though most usage authorities acknowledge that the distinctions have become meaningless.

But while that argument was awaiting resolution, more insidious linguistic chicanery was taking place: The “waiter” or “waitress,” the person who would “wait on you” in a restaurant, has morphed into the androgynous “wait person,” or (thankfully) more rarely, a “waitron,” someone who is part of the “wait staff.” (“Waitron” is usually used ironically, snarkily, or derisively.) That “wait” usage apparently began in the mid-80s, possibly as a way of de-sexing the job title. But it’s a little too contrived. (This columnist admits to advocating, in the mid-’70s, the use of “chairone” to replace “chairman” or “chairwoman.” Forgiveness is still sought.) If one must find a sex-neutral word for the person who brings you your eggs at the diner, there’s nothing wrong with “server.”

But wait. It gets worse. Your “wait person” no longer “waits on tables.” Instead, he or she simply “waits tables.” The intransitive verb “wait” has transitioned to transitive, taking the object “tables.” Though Ralph Ellison used “wait table” in Invisible Man, the popular usage is relatively new, less than ten years old, and seems confined to the United States. The British still “wait at table.”

“Wait” is not alone in that objectionable trip. Parents today call someone to “baby-sit the kids” about as frequently as they call someone to “baby-sit for the kids.” Their children have become objects.

There’s some logic to that. The “servers” aren’t just “waiting”; they need something or someone to “waiton.” (Or is it “waitupon”? See first paragraph.) That’s not how English has traditionally viewed that usage, though Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged lists both the transitive and intransitive usages in the restaurant context.

Still, for many people, hearing that someone “waits tables” grates badly on the ear. Those people can’t “wait” for that usage to pass. They could be “waiting” for a long time.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.