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Ever since I have arrived in Germany, I have been picking up words I hear often and then going back home to check their meanings. There is one word that still baffles me.

It is a form of greeting.

For example, when I enter my office, someone would say servos. I am not sure if that is exactly what they say, but it sound like chavos, sevos or something like that.

I hope someone of you has an idea what I am referring to. I asked two of my friends here and one told me it is a way to greet restricted to Bavaria an also used in Romania. He told me it was spelled servos but I can't find this word in a German dictionary.

What exactly is it? I live in Nuremberg, if that is important.

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It's from Latin,

servus

meaning slave, servant.

So when someone greets you,

Servus!

it meant originally "[I am your] servant" but it is nowadays only a friendly greeting, like "Hi!" in English.

Think of old-fashioned sign-offs in English letter-writing:

Your obdt. & humble servant

You will hear "Servus!" much more often in southern Germany and somewhat more frequently in the lower and lower-middle class strata of society.

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    hmm. I really like the word but after reading your answer I am not sure if I should make a habit of using this word or not :( – detraveller May 9 '13 at 16:05
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    ... and needless to say (?), it is always "Servus! Weisst du, wo der Strom ist?", never "Servus! Wissen Sie, wo der Strom ist?". Always duzen, never siezen. This could lead to an awkward situation if you're not sure that the guy wearing the hardhat is someone in the building trades like you or someone of elevated rank. The safe way to steer around this awkwardness is to duz but in the second person plural: "Servus! Wisst ihr, wo der Strom ist?" – Eugene Seidel May 9 '13 at 19:22
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    @EugeneSeidel sorry to disappoint you, but comments can be deleted anytime. answers stay "forever" – Vogel612 May 10 '13 at 9:29
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    @detraveller, I'm from Nuremberg and I can assure that there is rarely any occasion where you should not use "servus". It's always safe to say it to persons you'd normally say "Du" to. I actually did not know the exact origin of "servus", so nobody here will think of someone saying it in a negative way. – koko May 27 '13 at 13:45
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    It's late, but I have to take exception to the class theories (frequently [used by] lower and lower-middle class[es]) laid out above. Speaking of Austria, this is utterly, demonstrably false: Servus is used by all people in all walks of life, the word bears absolutely no class connotations. (Even though, sometimes, the pronunciation might to a certain degree.) – Ingmar Jun 18 '14 at 16:27
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Two random examples:

  1. I was in Bavaria (Allgäu) last week and also in Austria, doing some climbing. I greeted a passerby but was corrected by the lady: “We say servus in Bavaria” — which would agree with some of the explanations above.

  2. Bastian Schweinsteiger recently retired. A banner in the crowd used the #servus. I googled it (Ok, I know) to find the answer and found ‘servus’ (shortened from the german expression translating roughly to: Your humble servant, at your service). In this instance I think it was used as a mark of respect of service to the country (121 games).

Both explanations seem to have some accuracy it seems. I was born in Münster and have some interest for this reason as well as being a member of the military.

  • Wow … it would never cross my mind to greet a random passer-by with servus unless they looked 25 or younger. – Jan Sep 12 '16 at 13:42
  • Also, if the meaning of at your sevice ever existed, nowadays servus definitely does not carry it anymore. The fans were simply saying ‘goodbye’. – Jan Sep 12 '16 at 13:44
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It's short for 'servus Christi', or 'servus humillimus Christi': (a most humble) servant of Christ. Also used by Hungarians, spelled 'szervusz'. Nothing to do with the military whatsoever.

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I'm aware that this question is 3 years old, but I found it randomly and would like to add to the answers.

"servus" (also often pronounced "seavus") comes most likely from Latin "servus", as some other people have already pointed out. What I'm not convinced about is that it comes from a saying similar to "I'm your slave". Bavaria was occupied by Romans for about 300 years to a time when the Celtic population here was very sparse due to recent migrations. As far as I know there were no major settlements of Romans here (largely just garrisons), so the amount of people who owned slaves here seems to have been rather low. The later Germanic settlers didn't seem to have been too aggressive either, so the chance for many (Latin speaking) slaves was also rather low.

I think it's more likely that it comes from a military greeting like "At your service", which simply shortened to "servus" over time.

Interestingly it is not just common in Bavaria, but also Austria (who also speak Bavarian) and all the countries under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is also a Wiktionary article, but I'm not sure how accurate it is.

I do not have any evidence to back up my claims. Sadly there isn't much evidence of that time to give a definitive answer.

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    Hmm. At your service would be something like zu Diensten in German. Bavaria (contrary to Prussia) isn’t known for being particularly military-loving. Without any backing sources I’m inclined to say your explanation is wrong. – Jan Aug 31 '16 at 23:05
  • @Jan: You are talking about modern Bavaria while I was talking about Roman occupied Bavaria as the source, and they were "military-loving". I thought more of it as a greeting between soldiers in a garrison at that time, which simply shortened over time. – Matthias Schreiber Sep 1 '16 at 6:23
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It means service/servant and is used in southern Germany (Bavaria) which is predominantly Catholic. It is intended as meaning "service to God" similar to another greeting, "Grüß Gott" which means "Greetings to God."

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    Can you back up that claim? While the meaning is correct, it does not, to the best of my knowledge, make reference to God. – Ingmar Jun 18 '14 at 16:29

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