English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Footing the bill

Q: How did “foot” come to be used in “He’ll foot the bill”? And doesn’t it sound awkward to say “He footed the bill”?

A: The use of the verb “foot” in the expression “foot the bill” ultimately comes from the use of “foot” as a noun for the lower part of something—in this case, the total at the bottom of a bill.

When “foot” first appeared in Old English, it referred (as it does now) to the part of the leg below the ankle. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, dating back to as early as 725:

“Sona hæfde unlyfigendes eal gefeormod fet ond folma” (“Soon he’d devoured the lifeless body, feet and hands”). The passage describes the monster Grendel eating one of his victims.

The noun “foot” soon took on the additional sense of something resembling a foot. The OED’s first citation for this meaning, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Old English riddle that refers to the base of an inkhorn (an inkwell made from an antler) as a foot, spelled fot:

“nu ic blace swelge wuda ⁊ wætre … befæðme þæt mec on fealleð ufan þær ic stonde eorpes nathwæt hæbbe anne fot” (“now I swallow the black wood and water.  … I embrace within me the unknown darkness that falls on me from above. Where I stand on something unknown, I have one foot”). From the Exeter Book, “Riddle 93.”

In the early 15th century, the OED says, the noun “foot” took on the sense of “the sum or total of a column of numbers in an account, typically recorded directly below the final entry in the column.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1433 financial report in the records of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, a merchant guild:

“First, the saide maister and constables hafe resayved [have received] in mone tolde [money counted], iiijli. ijs. xd., as it profes be [proves by] the fote [foot] of accounte of the yere past” (from The York Mercers and Merchant Adventurers 1356–1917, a 1918 work by the British historian Maud Sellers).

A similar use of “foot” as a verb appeared in the late 15th century, according to the OED, which defines the term as “to add up (a column of numbers, or an account, bill, etc., having this) and enter the sum at the bottom.”

The earliest Oxford citation, with “footed” spelled “futit,” is from a record of judicial proceedings in Scotland: “The tyme that his compt [account] wes futit.” From The Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes, 1478–95 (edited by Thomas Thomson, 1839).

The sense of “foot” you’re asking about showed up in the early 19th century. Oxford defines it as “to pay or settle (a bill, esp. one which is large or unreasonable, or which has been run up by another party).”

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Pedestrious Tour, of Four Thousand Miles, Through the Western States and Territories, During the Winter and Spring of 1818, an 1819 memoir of a walking tour by Estwick Evans, a New England lawyer and writer:

“My dogs, knowing no law but that of nature, and having forgotten my lecture to them upon theft, helped themselves to the first repast presented, leaving their master to foot their bills.” (The dogs were later killed by wolves in the Michigan Territory as Evans was on his way to Detroit.)

As for “footed,” it may sound awkward, but it’s the only past tense and past participle listed in the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

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