A Check He Can’t Foot.

I was reading Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on café culture (subscribers only, I’m afraid) when I was taken aback by a description of Charlie Chaplin’s immigrant character who “tries to put off the arrival of a check he can’t foot simply by ordering more coffee.” I’m very familiar with the expression “to foot the bill,” but for me it’s fixed — you can’t replace “bill” with “check” or anything else. Is this the case for you as well? And does anyone know how the expression originated?

Comments

  1. I agree that that you can’t foot anything except a bill. This seems like the writer trying to be a little too clever.

    There’s an explanation of the origin of the idiom at World Wide Words. But I’m less than convinced. I can understand ‘foot the bill’ in the sense of adding up the numbers to put the total at the foot of the bill. But that’s an action by the person presenting the bill, not the one paying it, and the explanation linked here skates over how you would go from one sense to the other.

  2. @David L: The OED agrees that the origin of foot the bill is indeed in totaling up columns of figures to find the final amount that needs to be paid. This makes pretty good sense with the gloss “To pay or settle (a bill, esp. one which is large or unreasonable, or which has been run up by another party).” If you are thinking solely about the check at a restaurant, that is not a bill that you should have to total up yourself. However, there are plenty of situations in which the total amount that needs to be paid (not necessarily all the same payee) needs to be added up by the (possibly third parter) payer.

    The OED makes no mention of this usage being specific to the word bill. Moreover, while I agree that using anything except bill as the object sounds bad, one of the four OED cites (from Esquire in 1992) is: “Perot in 1986 secretly footed a hefty tab to sail a shipload of Miss U.S.A. contestants off the coast of Libya to entertain the Navy’s Sixth Fleet.” So other direct objects do show up now and then, apparently—however odd they sound.

  3. I’m with you — no hesitation, no doubts: sounds ESL and not very far along.

    Etymonline has:

    foot (v.)
    c. 1400, “to dance,” also “to move or travel on foot,” from foot (n.). From mid-15c. as “make a footing or foundation.” To foot a bill ….”pay the entirety of” is attested from 1848, from the process of

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    The totalling-up sense remains active in accountants’ jargon (at least for AmEng-speaking accountants), with related lexemes such as “to cross-foot” and idiomatic uses that sound quite odd when you first hear them like the complaint that the figures on a particular page (or table, or spreadsheet, etc.) “don’t foot.” https://smallbusiness.chron.com/footing-accounting-66583.html

  5. For me it definitely works only with bill, and I think it’s even more fixed than it is for Hat, in that even a bill he can’t foot sounds weird to me. It seems like it has to be foot(s|ed|ing) the bill, in that order, not something like the bill they footed or Was the bill footed?

  6. John Cowan says:

    I have trouble with those too, but not with DId he foot the bill or Who footed the bill? I suspect this is one of those restricted idioms like foot of the mountain.

  7. Trying to think of similar verbs, where something you do is related to a physical place on a piece of paper, and all I can come up with is the way we say a band is “headlining” a festival.

  8. In Ukian you can definitely foot a tab as well as a bill.

  9. Also fit the bill (& fill the bill). ‘Fill the bil’ – buy gas in Norway.

  10. I thought this might be a New Yörker house style thing (don’t use “bill” for “check”), but not according to Google.

  11. Here’s a use from Feb. 8, 1808 in the North Star newspaper (Danville, Vermont) p. 3 c. 3, quoting Farmer’s Cabinet on a British blockade of France:
    “Having filched each other of every thing valuable within reach, and finding their mode of warfare no longer a source of profit, the two great belligerents of Europe, as if by mutual agreement, appear determined that inoffensive neutrals shall foot the bill….They have not only milked, but have taken the cow, horns and all!….”

  12. Bill can foot the check

  13. But he can’t fool the Czech.

  14. Shmuel Agnon wrote of his first experience as a kid from a town in Galicia visiting a big-city café in Lviv:

    Or rather in Lemberg. There is something ahistorical about referring to that Habsburg city as “Lviv”. Just as it would be odd to read about Theodor Mommsen teaching in Wrocław or Polycarp, Bishop of Izmir.

  15. The city is first mentioned in the Galician-Volhynian chronicle under 1256 as L’vov.

    Sitsyu zhe plameni byvshu, yakozhe so vseye zemli zare viditi, yakozhe i so L’vova zryashche, viditi po polem Belz’skym’ ot goreniya silnago plameni.

  16. “[B]ut to refer to Rivendell as Imladris was as if one now was to speak of Winchester as Camelot, except that the identity was certain, while in Rivendell there still dwelt a lord of renown [Elrond] far older than Arthur would be, were he still king at Winchester today.”

    But that said (and I couldn’t resist it), speaking of Smyrna as İzmir doesn’t seem to me any weirder than referring in English to Athens, either classical or modern, or for that matter to the prophet Isaiah (eye-ZAY-uh), who would scarcely recognize this mutilation of his name.

  17. Searching the various BYU corpora turns up no hits for “foot the check” and only a handful for “foot the tab.” There are hundreds for “foot the bill.”

  18. speaking of Smyrna as İzmir doesn’t seem to me any weirder than referring in English to Athens, either classical or modern

    The difference, of course, is that you are following the traditional usage in a language in which you are communicating in.

    But calling Smyrna Izmir referring to period before 1922 is just a foolish exercise in political correctness (and morally quite questionable at that, if we recall how exactly the city lost people who called it Σμύρνη).

    Surely if the Turks capture Vienna again, you wouldn’t start calling it Viyana?

  19. John Cowan says:

    period before 1922

    I’m sure the Turks have called it that since at least 1076.

    start calling it Viyana

    Why not? Though it would take some getting used to. As I’ve said before, English adopts foreign spellings and pronounces them in its own bizarre way, so everyone wants to get their native spellings into English.

  20. Searching the various BYU corpora turns up no hits for “foot the check” and only a handful for “foot the tab.” There are hundreds for “foot the bill.”

    Makes sense, Ole’ Joe Smith sure had it figured. At %10 stubbing your tithe on his stone tablets has led to the best returns in the “modern” world and a Corpora quite unlike any other.

  21. The Battle of Volgograd.

  22. The city is first mentioned in the Galician-Volhynian chronicle under 1256 as L’vov.

    The point is not that nobody called it L’vov or L’viv, the point is that that was used by a particular ethnicity at the time and by nobody else — not only was the official name Lemberg, that’s what Agnon, his readers, and pretty much everybody else called it. I agree with Vanya that it’s ahistorical to refer to it by the modern name, though of course anyone who wishes is free to do so. I will raise an eyebrow and move on.

  23. Many Polish Jews knew it as Lwów. I’d like to know why Agnon preferred Lemberg.

  24. Lemberg is the primary Yiddish name of the city as far as I know – and Agnon spoke German as well.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    There’s a recently-published scholarly book with the apt title “Lemberg, Lwów, L’viv, 1914‒1947: Violence and Ethnicity in a Contested City.” But the punchline is that that’s an English translation of a book originally written in German, and the original title was the less toponymically apt “Kriegserfahrungen in einer multiethnischen Stadt: Lemberg 1914‒1947.”

  26. David Marjanović says:

    if the Turks capture Vienna again

    Tssss. They never did! They tried twice, but there are more Turks in Vienna now than ever before.

    (One of the xenophobe party’s favorite subjects, though not the one they bring up most often.)

    not only was the official name Lemberg

    I’m sure that was one of three official names. Plenty of places at least in the “Austrian” half of the empire had different official names in different languages.

    Kriegserfahrungen in einer multiethnischen Stadt

    Whoa! That’s quite a different title, as if the book were a TV show. “War experiences in a multiethnic city”… ethnicity is not a topic (if the title is accurate), it’s just background, and the violence is quite specific.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    foot of the mountain

    Kusaal mountains have buttocks rather than feet, presumably because they sit instead of standing.

  28. I wouldn’t like “the arrival of a bill he can’t foot” either, in reference to the Charlie Chaplin gag. “Footing the bill” is not just paying your own debt, it must include other people. So you could say “they all went out for dinner and he footed the bill for everyone”. I wouldn’t like to say “I had lunch at Macdonald’s because that’s the only place I could foot the bill”. But I could say “I took the soccer team to lunch at Macdonald’s because that’s the only place I could foot the bill”. For me anyway.

    There’s another possible usage, although I’ve never heard it. In more traditional societies, like 19th-century Ireland, it was common to always run a bill at, say, the grocer’s. You would never pay it off. It meant that there was a social relationship between you and the grocer. You would pay it down a bit sometimes, but never completely.

    If you paid the debt entirely, it was the equivalent of saying “I’m never going to shop here again!”

    In its original usage, “foot the bill” might possibly refer to this, but I’ve never encountered it. But then I’ve never lived in a society where you have that kind of relationship with retailers.

    Except what is known in the world of Silicon Valley startups as “vendor financing”. That’s when your company never pays any bills until the next time you need to get something from the same supplier. Much the same as how James Brown used to pay his backup band.

  29. John Cowan says:

    In more traditional societies, like 19th-century Ireland, it was common to always run a bill at, say, the grocer’s. You would never pay it off.

    This was more or less the story in colonial New England, because the British kept a tight lock on hard currency, keeping it out of the colonies as much as possible. So literally everyone had account books, not just businesses but individuals, and everyone extended credit to everyone else. Actual trade was often by way of barter, but in the account books the swap was recorded as two sales of equal or unequal monetary value even though no actual money changed hands. If they were unequal, the next trade would partly, wholly, or excessively redress the balance, and so on forever.

  30. The Habsburg lands as a whole didnt have a single official language. Josef II’s attempts to impose German backfired spectacularly. While most of the place names that reached the English speaking world did so thru the medium of German, by no means all did. It’d make sense that Polish forms predominate for the former kingdom of Galicia, given that Galicia was a “recent” acquisition.

  31. If we are going to insist on using present-day terminology, the Turks did conquer the vast majority of “Vienna.” Only the tiny bit inside die Ringstrasse was able to hold off the invaders.

  32. I wonder if the Mongols conquered most of Vienna too.

  33. There are only two sources that identify specific place names within Austria that the Mongols reached. According to a letter from Ivo of Narbonne preserved by Matthew of Paris, the Mongols got as far as a town “which is called [Neustat] in German, that is, new city” (quod Theutonice Neustat dicitur, id est, nova civitas). This has been identified as the town of Wiener Neustadt, about sixty kilometers to the south of Vienna. According to the Continuatio Garstensis, a Mongol force “killed many Christians by the sword on the bank of the Danube at [Niunburch], withdrawing without injury or harm to themselves” (multos christianos in ripa Danubii apud Niunburch gladio interfecit, sine lesione vel dampno recedentibus eisdem). This has been identified as the town of Korneuburg, about fifteen kilometers up the Danube to the northwest from Vienna. This is close, but from Google Maps it still appears to be outside of Vienna. There are a couple letters from Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome of Austria in Hormayr that mention clashes with the Mongols “around the borders” (circa limites) of Austria, but that is it.

  34. well, in the Chaplin scene, there is a lot of FOOTing about when the little vagabond tries to PICK up a dropped coin.
    Hence the conflation of footing the bill and picking up the check?

  35. David Marjanović says:

    If we are going to insist on using present-day terminology, the Turks did conquer the vast majority of “Vienna.” Only the tiny bit inside die Ringstrasse was able to hold off the invaders.

    Correct; point taken.

    Both Korneuburg and Klosterneuburg are still outside.

  36. maid hc: “Footing the bill” is not just paying your own debt, it must include other people.

    Yes, exactly. That’s it.

    In more traditional societies, like 19th-century Ireland, [also in urban 20C Britain] it was common to always run a bill at, say, the grocer’s. You would never pay it off.

    In America (but not elsewhere, as far as I know) you ask the proprietor of a bar or bodega if you can run a tab. When I moved to NY in the 1970s, before cash machines, I was told to ask the owner Mike at Fanelli’s bar on Prince Street if I could run a tab, because he’d also cash a check for customers and they’d be able to get hold of money outside of working hours (I never did it, I didn’t have any money to withdraw). There’s also a Fanelli’s in Glasgow (different Fanelli, I’m guessing).

    the Turks…Only the tiny bit inside die Ringstrasse

    The Ringstrasse is a Turkish invention, like croissants? I thought it was 19C. Oh no, wait. We’re insisting on present-day terminology, are we?

  37. Fanelli’s bar on Prince Street

    I remember that place!

  38. Looked up the place and discovered wonderful NYTimes article about amazing life and adventures of Fanelli’s bartender Bob Bozic.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/nyregion/fanelli-cafe-manhattan-bartender-bob-bozic-reclaims-mansion-in-europe.html?_r=0

  39. January First-of-May says:

    Unrelatedly, the 27 consecutive comments of November had been beaten with 29 consecutive comments on this post (number 7 to 35).

    Which makes me suspect that the actual longest consecutive comment chain in LH history is actually much larger.

  40. I remember that article too! AJP, you should read it, it’s quite a story.

  41. Wow. He’s been there for a couple of years now. I wonder if he’s happy in Belgrade.

    I remember that place!

    It’s been through many whatsits. Incarnations. Your memory depends on which decade you went there, but it always had an attractive exterior. And burgers.

  42. Checked Serbian media. As of October 2018, he was still living in the family mansion on Krunska street, but lacked money for upkeep and the government wants to take the building back, because he won’t pay debt incurred by previous owners (it used to headquarters of Democratic Party of Serbia).

  43. the government wants to take the building back

    Somehow I was expecting that even without knowing any details. Maybe he’ll be back at the bar next year.

  44. John Cowan says:

    Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome

    “Why was he called that?”

    “For his feats, Your Majesty.”

    you ask the proprietor of a bar or bodega if you can run a tab

    Times have changed. My local bodega takes delivery orders by phone, fax, email, or their website; takes credit and debit cards as well as food stamps (which are also a card nowadays); and my account with them (so that I don’t have to present a card physically) comes with frequent-buyer points, which have occasionally saved us when we were overdrawn at the bank for some reason. Furthermore, the owner and staff are not Hispanic but Indian. (Then again, the nearest deli is run by Arabs.)

  45. Leamas asking to run a tab at the grocers (then attacking the grocer when he is refused credit) is a major turning point in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome

    Turns out there are three with that name, but it’s this one, who has a Wikipedia article in English where all is explained. I hadn’t known his first wife was the closest thing to a purple-born princess available at the time.

  47. Furthermore, the owner and staff are not Hispanic but Indian. (Then again, the nearest deli is run by Arabs.)

    In Oslo they’re mostly Indian or Pakistani too. Are Manhattan greengrocers still all Korean? Open 24-7 with shiny fruit lined up in rows and pyramids? I’m guessing they only lasted one generation or until their offspring graduated from Harvard medical school and they retired exhausted to NJ. #hopelessbigot

  48. About 60-70% of grocers (not only greengrocers) in Manhattan are Korean, but that is down both as a percentage and in absolute numbers from the old days. Running a grocery is one of the things immigrants can easily do, and small groceries, bodegas, and corner stores generally (not a term New Yorkers usually use) have been owned by a succession of immigrants: German, Jewish, Italian, Spanish, Korean.

    As you say, the second or at most the third generation sells the store to the next wave of immigrants and moves on. In addition, South Korea specifically is no longer nearly as much a land of emigration as it was in 1965, when large-scale Asian immigration became possible due to the elimination of obsolete national quotas that favored Western Europeans and Latin Americans.

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