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Foot the bill

Q From John Lanahan, Berlin: Where and when did the phrase to foot the bill originate?

A It is an odd expression, isn’t it? It’s the kind of idiomatic phrase that we may use regularly without any feeling that it’s in the least odd, until somebody such as yourself asks about it.

It comes from the mildly figurative sense of foot that refers to the end or bottom of something, such as the foot of a ladder. In this case, it is a verb that — for example — might once have meant adding a postscript to the end of a letter. But our sense refers in particular to the totting up of a column of figures, especially in an account ledger, and adding the result to the bottom of the column.

This was often used in the set phrase foot up (to), meaning to count. The Times of 19 September 1867, for example, had this: “The united debts of the colony foot up something like £50,000”. And this is from The Rover Boys on the Great Lakes, by Arthur M Winfield, published in 1901: “The two counted the pile and found it footed up to two hundred and forty dollars.”

Our sense of settling one’s account was acquired from the original because adding up the items on an account was something that would commonly be done at the point when one was paying one’s bill. The earliest example recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1819, in an American work with the title Evans’s Pedestrious Tour of Four Thousand Miles, which was republished in 1904 in a book entitled Early Western Travels 1748–1846.

To start with, it was a decidedly colloquial usage, but as time passed the associated senses fell out of use and to foot the bill is now a fixed phrase, though still somewhat informal. It often now has the implication of paying for something whose cost is considered large or unreasonable, especially if the person doing so has been forced into paying for the consequences of the actions of somebody else.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Apr. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 16 April 2005.