Dumbwaiters, that is to say small industrial freight lifts, are an almost ubiquitous sight in hotels, bars and restaurants nowadays. Often used to reduce trips and simplify everyday tasks for kitchen and hotel staff, these devices are extremely popular for their compact size, versatility, ease of use and relative sturdiness.
Yet while many people are familiar with the concept of a dumbwaiter, very few are likely to have actually stopped and thought about where that name originates from, and why it was adopted for that specific implement in the first place. Aside from being common in the kitchen areas of hotels and restaurants, what other link is there between an industrial lift and a waiter? Where does the ‘dumb’ part originate from? Does it refer to lack of intelligence, or lack of ability to speak? All of these questions and more will be addressed in the lines below.
The Unspeaking Staffer
The exact origin of the term dumbwaiter is hard to pinpoint, but its etymology is relatively uncontroversial. The expression derived from the fact that the small freight elevators of the same name were often used as an inanimate stand-in for an actual member of staff; ‘dumb waiter’ therefore referred to the way in which these devices carried out some of the tasks that the help would normally take care of, while at the same time being unseen and unheard, or in other words, ‘dumb.’
The term is thought to have first been used sometime in the mid-19th century, in wealthy homes and estates in the United States. It seems consensual, however, that the term first rose to prominence in public consciousness when it was used in a theatre play, ‘The Dumb Waiter’, by Harold Pinter. First performed in 1957, the piece quickly rose to international fame and renown, and with it, the term ‘dumbwaiter’ as a synonym for a small-scale industrial freight lift. It is thanks to this play that the expression is thought to have entered public consciousness once and for all, and therefore, it can be considered its true originator, or at the very least responsible for its diffusion across western society.
Campaign for Change
Perhaps more surprising than the origin or meaning of the term dumbwaiter is the fact that, in recent years, several parties have been lobbying for it to be changed. The expression is nowadays seen as mildly derogatory, and a number of replacement terms have slowly but surely been taking its place over the past few decades. Alternative names for these types of devices include microlift, lazy Susan, and serving tray, all of which are considered more acceptable and politically correct than the term defined in the lines above.
Regardless of these efforts, however, it seems unlikely that the term dumbwaiter will slip out of public consciousness any time soon. Even if these alternate denominations do catch on with an increasingly more socially conscious general public, the transition will not occur overnight; the process is likely to take a number of years, and until then, these small, useful implements will continue to be known by their current name.
Whatever name they are known by, however, one thing seems clear: dumbwaiters should continue to play just as key a role in the hospitality and catering industry in upcoming decades as they do now. The versatile and easy to use nature of these lifts makes them an indispensable asset in any large, industrial-style kitchen or laundry room, and this status looks to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Whether they are known as dumbwaiters, microlifts, lazy Susans, serving trays or any other name, these lifts should continue to be hotel and hospital staff’s best friends for as long as they remain in production.