Discussion of a brief note I posted here a couple of days ago, on boss as an address term, brings up two points; the need to clarify what kind of address term is at issue in this case; and the difficulty of gauging the sociolinguistic status of some usage, when all you have to go on is your own experience.

Referential boss. From OED2 on boss, the etymology and two relevant senses:

< Dutch baas master (older sense ‘uncle’)

An orig. American equivalent of ‘master’ in the sense of employer of labour; applied also to a business manager, or any one who has a right to give orders. In England at first only in workmen’s slang, or humorously, = ‘leading man, swell, top-sawyer’; now in general use in Britain. [attested from the 17th century on]

In American politics, a manager or dictator of a party organization. [the only cite is from 1882, but the usage is common; think of Boss Tweed]

The OED should probably add some other extensions of the employer or manager sense, for instance to Mafia bosses.

And perhaps to other transferred uses, as in the childish formula You’re not the boss of me! (referring to people in charge of a kid) and also in Bruce Springsteen’s nickname The Boss (treating him as the chief man of an organization) — these two combined in an entertaining Bizarro,  “At Home With the Springsteens”, with Springsteen’s rebellious daughter confronting her dad.

In any case, we have a fairly clear referential sense of boss. Like other inherently relational nouns — being a boss means you’re the boss *of* people — boss can then be used vocatively, as an address term to someone who’s your boss. As when the NCIS staff address their boss, Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. as boss. Or when a Mafia underling addresses his Mafia boss this way, as in this cautionary tale.

And we can get jocular uses of vocative boss in situations where someone is treated as if they were the boss of the speaker, as when one member of a couple addresses the other as boss (“He/She who must be obeyed”).

The service-worker vocative. What I said in my brief note on vocative boss:

For some time now, I’ve noticed a pattern of address term usage in local restaurants and cafes (three of them): I am addressed by servers and other employees there as boss. The speakers are all Hispanic men, younger than me (I’ve never gotten boss from anyone else; I don’t have employees of my own); and of course it’s crucial that I’m male; and it might be relevant that I’m a regular customer in all three places; and it might be relevant that the atmosphere of all three places is informal. (Some of these men sometimes address me as Arnold, but other times as boss.)

Now I have only my own experience to go on, and that’s in a very narrow social world. The connection to Hispanics might just reflect the fact that “ethnic” service workers locally are mostly Hispanic. And even the connection to ethnic service workers might have been lifted, with (male) customers treated, politely but informally, by (male) service workers in general, as if they were bosses (in a metaphorical extension). Speculations on Facebook about service-worker usages and concentrating on ethnicity:

Ned Deily: I’m fairly certain using “boss” was not an uncommon address even back in the Little Town of Bethlehem [PA] of the ’70’s where there were very few Hispanic food service workers, but there were many of Eastern and Southern European origin. I wonder if movies had an influence, like Chico Marx.

Damien Hall: I get this quite a lot in England, and have always associated it with South Asian taxi-drivers and other service-workers, though there aren’t many Hispanic people here to associate it with. Here (Newcastle, but I think this also applies in London), South Asian is a dominant ethnicity in taxi-driving and, of course, service of the food of their regions, whose restaurants are much commoner here than Hispanic ones are. Maybe it’s genuinely a service-worker thing? But I wonder, then, why all the different ethnicities would choose that particular way of referring to their superior as a term of address for their customer.

Damien went on to speculate more on sources:

I’m watching a cookery programme, and have suddenly had a possible realisation about this. I think it’s a worldwide thing that chefs in a kitchen call each other ‘chef’, especially when giving orders: ‘Bacon under a hot grill for ten minutes, please chef!’ ‘Yes chef.’ As this thread seems to be showing that ‘boss’ is particularly prevalent in restaurants, could that be because someone’s (or some people) made a translation somewhere along the line, maybe because they were not a native speaker of English, and didn’t realise that we didn’t translate ‘chef’ in that context?

The Chico Marx (mock-Italian) connection looks good. you can quickly find all of these quotes attributed to him:

That’s some joke, eh, Boss.
Thisa guy wearsa make-up, boss.
You know what I think, Boss?
That’s a good one, boss.
We fool ’em, Boss.

In some of these cases, Chico’s character has been hired to do some job, so that moves us towards the service-worker category. But others look, at first glance, just to be generic male vocatives, like pal or dude. People quote Chico a lot, but rarely with any attribution, so it would be a morning’s work to get the context for each quote.

[This just in on Facebook, right after I posted:

Nick Fitch: I regularly get called “Boss” by the East Asian staff of the grocery and liquor store near my house [in London]. It seems to be a standard mode of address for the male customers. The female ones get called “Dear”. If I mentioned I was gay I’d probably end up being called “Bear”.]

Commenter Gary on this blog asks about the Hispanic servers:

Would they say patrón … if they were speaking to you in Spanish, or call you Don Arnold?

I have no idea. It would be hard to find out without making them self-conscious. (Well, if my Spanish were more than minimal, I could shift to speaking Spanish and see what they say to me in that language. Or get a Spanish-speaking colleague to check things out. Of course, nothing guarantees that they’ll use *any* address term; one way of avoiding the awkwardnesses of choosing address terms is to avoid them wherever possible.)

Now for possible extensions of the usage, on Facebook:

Ken Callicott: I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten “boss” from non-hispanic male servers or bartenders in their 20s, but I’ll try to keep an ear out to verify this.

Grant Barrett: I’ve heard it from a young white man in North Carolina in the early 1990s, as well as the then white male head of reference publishing for a big New York university-based publishing house in the early 2000s, and from lots of other folks. Never heard it from women or people or color. [These might be jocular uses. You’d need to have more information about the context to decide.]

That’s the state of boss studies at the moment.

7 Responses to “boss”

  1. Z Says:

    Hmmm, well, you sit in a restaurant, one server approaches you, and you give commands. Of course in a polite way (e.g., Can I have some…., please?)
    That’s what a boss (patron) at work also does, he commands you. Maybe that’s the reason that the servers address you as “boss”…if that makes sense.

  2. Brian Ashurst Says:

    You mention “She who must be obeyed” in this post and I wonder if most people know where this comes from. Of course, many of us think of the British TV lawyer (actually barrister) Rumpole of the Bailey, whose wife was referred to as “She who must be obeyed”. However the origin was a novel by H. Ryder Haggard, “She”, telling the amazing story of the queen of a lost, vaguely Ethiopian, society whose title this was. She had the gift of long life (thousands of years) and… well, you’ll have to read the book!

  3. Julian Lander Says:

    It’s probably an alternative to “sir,” which can seem overly mannered or associated with old age to some, so “boss” becomes a title that feels appropriately deferential without the formality. Some women on Facebook (my contemporaries, so in their mid-50s) have commented that they uncomfortable with “ma’am” as a title, and “sir” may have some of the same resonances. So “boss” may seem easier to deal with.

  4. Mark A. Mandel Says:

    Man, this post is *boss*!

  5. Mar Rojo Says:

    I’ve heard “Hola, jefe!” (boss) used for customers in Spain.

  6. mollymooly Says:

    In Ireland, “Howya boss” is the stereotypical/caricature greeting by an Traveller to a non-Traveller, especially when soliciting work or hawking.

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