1630s, "useful, serviceable," from Latin subservientem (nominative subserviens), present participle of subservire "assist, serve, come to the help of, lend support," from sub "under" (see sub-) + servire "serve" (see serve (v.)). The meaning "slavishly obedient" is first recorded 1794. Related: Subserviently.
Entries linking to subservient
word-forming element meaning "under, beneath; behind; from under; resulting from further division," from Latin preposition sub "under, below, beneath, at the foot of," also "close to, up to, towards;" of time, "within, during;" figuratively "subject to, in the power of;" also "a little, somewhat" (as in sub-horridus "somewhat rough"), from PIE *(s)up- (perhaps representing *ex-upo-), a variant form of the root *upo "under," also "up from under." The Latin word also was used as a prefix and in various combinations.
In Latin assimilated to following -c-, -f-, -g-, -p-, and often -r- and -m-. In Old French the prefix appears in the full Latin form only "in learned adoptions of old Latin compounds" [OED], and in popular use it was represented by sous-, sou-; as in French souvenir from Latin subvenire, souscrire (Old French souzescrire) from subscribere, etc.
The original meaning is now obscured in many words from Latin (suggest, suspect, subject, etc.). The prefix is active in Modern English, sometimes meaning "subordinate" (as in subcontractor); "inferior" (17c., as in subhuman); "smaller" (18c.); "a part or division of" (c. 1800, as in subcontinent).
late 12c., serven, "to render habitual obedience to, owe allegiance to," also "minister, give aid, give help," from Old French servir "to do duty toward, show devotion to; set table, serve at table; offer, provide with," from Latin servire "be a servant, be in service, be enslaved;" figuratively "be devoted; be governed by; comply with; conform; flatter," originally "be a slave," related to servus "slave," which is of uncertain origin.
Perhaps from Etruscan (compare Etruscan proper names Servi, Serve, Latinized as Servius), but de Vaan says it is from Proto-Italic *serwo- "shepherd," *serwā- "observation," from PIE *seruo- "guardian" (source also of Avestan haraiti "heeds, protects"):
Rix 1994a argues that the original meaning of *serwo- probably was 'guard, shepherd', which underwent a pejorative development to 'slave' in Italy between 700 and 450 BC. Servire would be the direct derivative of servus, hence 'be a slave'; servare would in his view be derived from an older noun *serwa- or *serwom 'observation, heedance'.
It is attested by c. 1200 in widespread senses: "to be in the service of, perform a service for; attend or wait upon, be personal servant to; be a slave; owe allegiance to; officiate at Mass or other religious rites;" from early 13c. as "set food at table;" mid-14c. as "to wait on (customers)."
From late 14c. as "treat (someone or something) in some fashion." To serve (someone) right "treat as he deserves" is recorded from 1580s. Sense of "be useful, be beneficial, be suitable for a purpose or function" is from early 14c.; that of "take the place or meet the needs of, be equal to the task" is from late 14c.; that of "suffice" is from mid-15c.
The meaning "render active military service" is from 1510s. The sporting sense is attested by 1580s, first in tennis. The legal sense of "present" (a writ, warrant, etc.), "give legal notice of" is from early 15c. To serve hand and foot "minister to attentively" is by c. 1300.
He no schuld neuer wond
To seruen him fro fot to hond
["Amis and Amiloun," c. 1330]
updated on December 19, 2013