It is one of the burning issues of our age, whether a properly brought up person (like what all readers of this blog are certain to be) should refer to ‘napkin’ or ‘serviette’. My view before I looked into this more closely is that the posher you are the more likely you are to say napkin. My mum who was certainly not posh, always called them serviettes. (Though I’m not sure we ever had any in our house).
Starting from basics, what we’re referring to here is pieces of cloth or paper used for wiping the mouth and fingers to clean excess food etc from your face and protect you from spills and crumbs if you’re a clumsy eater.
The ancient Greeks may have used pieces of bread to wipe their hands. Apparently this is suggested in various sources including something said by a sausage seller in Aristophanes’ play The Knights. The use of paper napkins is documented in China where paper was invented in the 2nd century BC. Paper napkins were known as chih pha, folded in squares, and used for the serving of tea.
The word napkin comes from the French word nappe which is a cloth for covering a table. The French court had codes of etiquette for the aristocracy, which included how to use a napkin, when to use it and finally how far to unfold it in the lap. A French treatise dating from 1729 stated that “It is ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth and a most vulgar error to wipe one’s nose with it.” That’s probably still the rule today but I’m sure everybody has transgressed in some or all of those ways. Or maybe it’s just me….
A serviette (derived from the old French for ‘serve’) is functionally the same as a napkin and made either of cloth or paper but (at least in the past) was used more for meals taken standing up, cocktail receptions, buffet suppers etc. As far as I can gather the word is rarely if ever used in the USA, where the napkin reigns supreme.
Anyway in 1954 Nancy Mitford insisted in “The English Aristocracy” that serviette was a vulgarism (non-U) and napkin was correct in all circumstances (U). Apparently this snobbery is essentially British. In Australia and New Zealand, “serviette” generally refers to the paper variety and “napkin” refers to the cloth variety. The same distinction is used in Canada although “paper napkin” may be used interchangeably with “serviette”.
So there you have it. I would hazard a guess that in the UK at least the word serviette is scarcely known by anyone under 40, and will probably disappear one day.
To finish with some advice from the posh people’s bible Debrett’s:
Napkins should be placed on the lap as soon as you are seated. When you get down from the table, leave the napkin, unfolded on the table, to the left of the place setting (napkins are never left folded as it implies that they may be reused).
So now you know. Now where do you stand on the great pudding vs dessert debate?