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shameless pleading

Bill of goods

From the people who brought you “Serving Suggestion.”

Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase “been sold a bill of goods” used, I think, to mean that the buyer has been swindled in some way. But what does it mean? Have I bought a list of various items, or “goods” on the “bill of goods” only to find that they are nonexistent? Or what? — Allan Pratt.

Or what, indeed? A bill of goods would seem to be a good thing, like a receipt. Speaking of receipts, how many of you folks closely examine your receipts from the supermarket? Until recently, the only time we did was when we got home and something we knew we had bought wasn’t in the bag, which seems to happen fairly often. There’s a cashier in one store we go to who apparently likes to sell the same package of boneless chicken over and over again. Anyway, we were checking the receipt last week and came across an entry right in the middle that said “Police Beverage: 0.00″ OK, I understand it was a free drink for a cop, no problem, but why on our receipt? Are we being shadowed by a thirsty flatfoot?

“Bill of goods” is a rather mundane phrase to have acquired such nefarious overtones. In its literal sense, a “bill of goods” is simply a list of items sent or consigned to another party for safekeeping, for sale, or in return for payment (i.e., essentially an itemized receipt). If I ran a shop selling only boneless chicken, for instance, I would expect the wholesaler who delivered the chicken to me in big boxes to provide me with a “bill of goods” detailing what I had bought.

The “bill” in “bill of goods” is the common English word meaning, at its most basic level, “written statement, document or list.” The word “bill” first appeared in English in the 14th century, from the Anglo-Norman “bille,” which was an adaptation of the Latin “bulla.” In Medieval Latin “bulla” meant “document,” but in Classical Latin it meant “bubble, blob, lump,” which referred to the wax seal used to seal official documents. A “Papal Bull,” an official edict from the Pope, is so-called because of the wax seal (“bull”) affixed to the document. Wax seals being largely obsolete, “bill” is now used for all sorts of documents, from laws passed by Congress to that itemized invoice from the phone company festooned with 419 dubious surcharges. “Bill” is also sometimes used to mean simply an itemized list, such as the “bill of fare” (menu) in a restaurant or the Bill of Rights.

“Bill of goods” was used in the non-pejorative “list of stuff” sense for many years until the 1920s, when it suddenly took on a negative spin in such colloquial phrases as “to sell someone a bill of goods,” meaning “to deceive or swindle; to persuade someone to accept something undesirable” (“Selling a big bill of goods hereabouts, I’ll wager, you old rascals?” Eugene O’Neill, Marco Millions, 1927). “Bill of goods” very quickly almost entirely lost its simple, honest  mercantile sense and became a synonym for “scam.”

Just how this transformation happened is something of a mystery; there does not appear to have been any famous case of fraud that might have made the phrase notorious. It’s more likely that the negative use began as a rueful acknowledgement of falling for a fraud (e.g., “Harry thought he bought nine crates of French champagne, but all he really bought was a bill of goods”) which became generalized as it spread in vernacular use. A similar process long ago transformed the phrase “don’t buy a pig in a poke” (referring to a suckling pig — often actually a stray cat — sold in a burlap sack) from advice to Medieval market-goers into a wise warning for 21st century consumers.

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