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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.

8 comments to Bill of goods

  • Sean Work

    My theory is that at some point a common swindle was to sell someone a bill of goods – not the goods themselves, but just the bill. In a similar vein I’ve seen ebay auctions for the boxes of various popular products.

    • My thoughts exactly… someone was shown a ‘bill of goods’ and said I will sell you this for $5000… they pay the money assuming he means the items listed ON the bill of goods, but actually just receives the bit of paper.

  • Tom

    This was quite a lengthy post that led to nowhere. Word Detective: I hate to tell you but Sean Work is right. The answer to the meaning behind the expression is as simple as that – no etymology per word needed. LOL.

    To be sold a bill of goods means to be sold “the bill” not the goods. In other words you got conned. Better luck next time.

  • Anonymous

    If all someone sold you was a bill of goods, without the goods, that would be a scam indeed!

  • Anna

    Yeah, that has to be what it is. It is one of my big pet peeves when people use a phrase like that without examining what it could mean. I’ve confused by this one until now. Clearly a bill of goods is the paper with no goods that it lists. I always thought a bill of goods was a list backed by real goods, so how could that be bad? Now I understand — it is the list with nothing to back it.

  • G Lampa

    Agreed. It seems to suggest that all you came away with, after parting with your hard-earned money, is the bill itself. Hence, you’ve been “sold the bill”.

  • Mike

    I’ve always felt it meant being compelled to buy a whole collection of goods, including a lot of useless things you wouldn’t otherwise want, in order to get what you do want. If some of the fiction I’ve read has any basis in fact, many a prospector arriving in the old West or Klondike was compelled to buy a whole outfit of picks, shovels, axes, camp stove, tent, etc when all he really wanted was a couple of shovels. So the scam is that you were manipulated into buying a lot of what you don’t need. Still practiced today by cable companies, cellular providers, etc.

  • Steve

    To understand what the meaning of “to be sold a bill of goods” was at the time people started uttering it, we have to go back to what was going on at the time. In 1893, Sears, Roebuck & Company was founded. It was the joining of two companies, and a lot of their business was a mail order business. The company came out with a catalog at least once a year from which people could order a wide variety of goods. Back, then, many people lived in places where the choice of things to buy could be pretty limited, especially in small towns, so catalogs were a popular way to purchase things.

    Sears started building small stores in towns from which people could readily purchase the most popular items and from which people could order the rest by looking at a Sears catalog and writing down the catalog numbers of the items. People could pay for the order at the Sears store, and then they would be given a bill of sale, which was basically a receipt for the goods that they had purchased.

    Sears would have the goods delivered to that Sears store, and the customer would be notified when the goods came in. I know this firsthand because as a kid in the 1970s, my parents used to order from the Sears Wish Book Christmas Catalog, and one time my dad had me come with him when he went to pick up the Christmas order. Being a curious kid, when my dad was not looking, I leaned over and looked at the bill of goods to see what was on the list.

    Other companies used to do things the same way–have a customer come in and pay and in return give him a bill of sale–and have him wait for the goods to be shipped from another city. This was common in the first half of the twentieth century when the phrase “being sold a bill of goods” was much more commonly used.

    It is also why the phrase does not seem to make much sense anymore. Today, many of the Sears stores are closing, and people order stuff online instead. The catalogs of old are now web pages that people order from, and they get receipts emailed to them. However, the concept of being sold a bill of goods still applies. If you pay your money online, and the company from which you order your goods sends you an email receipt, yet that company never ships you your purchase, then you too have been sold a bill of goods. You paid, and you got a receipt, but you received no product. :)

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