late 14c., "laborious, subordinate, appropriate to a servant or to the class of slaves," originally in reference to work that it is forbidden to do on the Sabbath, from Latin servilis "of a slave" (as in Servile Wars, name given to the slave revolts in the late Roman Republic), also "slavish, servile," from servus "slave" (see serve (v.)). Related: Servilely.
By mid-15c. as "of the rank of a servant; of or pertaining to servants;" the sense of "cringing, fawning, mean-spirited, lacking independence" is recorded from c. 1600 The earliest sense in English was Church-legal, servile work being forbidden on the Sabbath. The phrase translates Latin opus servilis, itself a literal translation of the Hebrew words.
updated on June 04, 2022