Why Do We Foot Bills?

You’ve probably heard this idiom before, especially when it comes to bills that get more and more expensive. But beyond walking over to the bank or cashier, it’s not like we use our feet when we’re shelling out dollars for goods and services. So why do we foot bills? It’s not like kicking them will make it so we don’t have to pay anymore. Right?


Further Reading: What Is the Biggest Number on a Bill?

Modern Ledger Feet

Foot at one point also referred to a standard rate or value, dating back at least to 1588 in texts written by H. Oldcastel and J. Mellis. Here it’s written that one should “use one foote or standard of money in your accompt.” It also appears in reference to selling things for less than their accepted value; like selling your corn “under foot.”

You’re unlikely to see either of these in everyday language, as we largely took “foot” to literally mean the bottom of a bill or ledger. 

Foot Up

So footing the bill. Typically it just means one is financially responsible for paying–typically when the price tag is quite expensive. Generally. There’s often the connotation that the one footing the bill is generous for putting down the cash. 

The modern idiom “foot the bill” likely has its origins in an idiom dating back to the 1500s: “foot up.” “Foot up” is fairly straightforward, and has a pretty direct connection to footing the bill. To foot up is to tally or document something, and this was typically applied to bills as well. The total amount to be paid normally sits at the bottom of an itemized list–also known as its foot. If the total doesn’t live at the bill’s foot, you’ll still have to go all the way to the bottom to determine if it’s actually an accurate total anyway. 

“Foot” also had a similar meaning even as far back as 1480. In wardrobe accounts of Edward IV,  we see the word “foote” used as a shorthand for adding values on a ledger and putting the value at the bottom of it. Again, its foot. 

If we turn to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, we find that the idiom “foot the bill” is credited with origins in the 1800s. There are a handful of examples dating back to at least 1842 (among American authors); where the phrase “foot the bill” is used in its contemporary fashion: to pay for something.

In Jonathan Baldwin Turner’s Mormonism in All Ages (1842) we find the following passage.

“The day of account drew near, when, of course, [temple leaders] found themselves bankrupt, and left their Mormon endorsers to foot the bill.”

Consistent with every American author using the phrase back then is that the person footing the bill is doing so for somebody else. Like if your friend bought themselves an ice cream cone and you ended up paying for it. So while we can trace footing the bill back farther than the 1840s, the 1840s are some of the earliest instances (at least within the US) that footing the bill is seen to take on its more commonly understood air of generosity. 

Speaking of bills, see if you know what’s supposed to go on a dollar bill here