Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Well, here it is. Bill. Like it or not, we all have them, we all think about paying them.

I, of course, am no exception. Several kind people have asked me recently why I have been producing fewer articles for this blog. The main reason is that I do not receive an income from here, and I have bills to pay. Much as I would like to spend my time writing more and more articles, I have to do other work that actually pays. If you would like to help enable me to produce more articles here, please support my books; fiction and non-fiction.

Now, onto the matter of the etymology of bill.

If you look in the dictionary, you will find several definitions for the word ‘bill’. It could be a bill in parliament; a duck’s bill; a bill to be paid; a slang term for the police, as well as other usages.

Here we are not looking at the duck’s bill, which has another origin, but rather at bill in the other senses, which are all related.

The meaning ‘list’ is the one that has developed to give rise to the others. If you think about a parliamentary bill, it tends to be written out as a list of points; and the same goes for a bill to be paid. So it is not hard to see how the meaning tranferred.

In this spirit, our first example is from the Rolls of Parliament from 1444, where we find the observation:

They will delyver no Billes to the Merchauntz

I scarcely need to include a translation into Modern English, and indeed I have no intention of doing so! But what does bill mean here? Is it a list or a statement of payment? The answer is it could be either. A list of goods for the merchants, that would then be priced as a statement of how much to pay.

Compare this with a quote in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale Prologue from 1395, continuing the theme with a merchant.

His bille,

in which that he ywriten hadde his wille.

(His formal document,

In which he had written his will)

The modern translation sounds a bit less poetic, and probably with a bit of effort that could be changed. But notice the meaning here. Bill is used to mean ‘formal document’. It is not because this is the starting point of the word; even at that time, it was already used with several meanings. See this reference from around the same time – in this case 1404 – from the Testamenta Eboracensia (Wills registered at York).

Ye shall fynde a bille closed wyth ynne this of alle the trewe dettes that ben aught to me.

(You shall find enclosed a list of all the debts owed to me.)

Here, the meaning is ‘list’. So we can see that the meanings were concurrent. But what of the source of bill before that time? It came via Anglo-French bille, itself probably an adaptation of anglicised Latin billa, meaning ‘list’. This form was derived from Medieval Latin bulla, which meant ‘decree, sealed document’.

I personally like the next step in our linguistic path. Classical Latin used bulla somewhat differently. It meant ’round swelling’ – and by extension bubble, a stud on a door and a type of Etruscan amulet worn around the neck. The word was probably used for the second two as they were round and perhaps stuck out like something swollen. So how on earth did this come to mean ‘list, official document’?

The answer lies with the amulet. A seal was a round thing often worn as a piece of jewellery and it didn’t take long for bulla to move from ‘Etruscan amulet’ to ‘large round official piece of jewellery’ to ‘seal’. And from the seal to the document that it was used to seal. And from there? Well, what are official documents if not lists of one kind or another?

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