The word deacon is derived from the Greek word diákonos (διάκονος), which is a standard ancient Greek word meaning "servant", "waiting-man", "minister", or "messenger". One commonly promulgated speculation as to its etymology is that it literally means "through the dust", referring to the dust raised by the busy servant or messenger.
It is generally assumed that the office of deacon originated in the selection of seven men by the apostles, among them Stephen, to assist with the charitable work of the early church as recorded in Acts 6.
The title deaconess (διακόνισσα diakónissa) is not found in the Bible. However, one woman, Phoebe, is mentioned at Romans 16:1–2 as a deacon (διάκονος diákonos) of the church in Cenchreae. Nothing more specific is said about her duties or authority, although it is assumed she carried Paul's Letter to the Romans. The exact relationship between male and female deacons varies. In some traditions a female deacon is simply a member of the order of deacons, while in others, deaconesses constitute a separate order. In some traditions, the title "deaconess" was also sometimes given to the wife of a deacon.
A biblical description of the qualities required of a deacon, and of his household, can be found in 1 Timothy 3:1–13.