Bill of Goods.

My wife and I were out walking when one of us mentioned somebody being “sold a bill of goods” and we looked at each other in that this-is-a-case-for-Languagehat way and said “How did that expression arise?” We surmised, correctly, that a bill of goods is literally a consignment of merchandise (in the words of Merriam-Webster), but how did it come to mean (to quote their second definition) “something intentionally misrepresented : something passed off in a deception or fraud”? Anybody know the history of this?


  1. Originally an American phrase… we seem to have led the world in confidence men, snake-oil salesmen, and flim-flammers in the 19th century (and the 21st?).

    Is the metaphor behind the second definition just the simple one that you get “sold” the paper representation or promise of something rather than the actual goods themselves?

  2. ə de vivre says:

    I used this phrase the other day, but as “sold a false bill of goods”. I always assumed you had to specify the “false” part, but Google suggests that this is a far less common usage.

    I’ll say this though, I used to have a job where I saw a lot of invoices, purchase orders, bills of lading, packing slips, and all sorts of other records of wholesale buying and shipping. I’m pretty sure no one in North America calls anything a “bill of goods” these days in actual commercial transactions.

  3. For what it’s worth, I share the “false” part as a necessary component of the phrase–who would mind a genuine bill of goods, right?

    Perhaps the development is similar to that of “confidence man,” which, now that “con man” has gone its own way as a phrase, can almost sound benign without qualification when you first hear it. Presumably the negative version without “false” dates to a time when actual bills of goods were so common, it was clear to everyone that some special sense beyond the surface had to be intended by the saying.

  4. Greg Pandatshang says:

    AG and Elessorn’s accounts have merit. Alternatively, it could be like “I could care less”, where the whole unit becomes a stock phrase to the point where the literal meaning of the words doesn’t matter so much: you can tell what I mean just by context and tone of voice (although I personally would never, ever say “I could care less”, I do understand it when other people say it). So “false bill of goods” simplifies to “bill of goods” in situations where the point I’m making is clear regardless. I’m assuming this is easier in a Sitz im Leben where I rarely or never handle an actual bill of goods, so the only time I mention a bill of goods is when I’m using this figure of speech.

  5. The Google Ngram Viewer suggests that “sold a false bill of” is newer than “sold a bill of” [link]; I’d hazard that it’s from people trying to make it make sense.

    Personally, I’ve always interpreted it the way that AG suggests. I wonder if it originates with an actual nineteenth-century con of some sort?

  6. I’ve also always interpreted it as AG has, that you bought something on paper, and the goods were either never delivered, or not as described.

    (I can’t recall hearing it with “false” included.)

  7. but how did it come to mean (to quote their second definition) “something intentionally misrepresented : something passed off in a deception or fraud”?
    World Wide Words says “we don’t know”, but that the meaning is attested since the 1920s.

  8. A 2013 post at The Word Detective investigates the phrase; it similarly concludes that the pejorative sense took off in the 1920s*, but is unable to offer any explanation for its semantic basis other than the kind of speculation we’ve already seen here.

    * The earliest OED citation, quoted in the article, is from 1927. Searching Google Books, I do not find the modern idiom before the 1940s (although the search does not seem to be very reliable—searching for one phrasing fails to match passages returned by a search for a different phrasing—and it may be that others will have more luck).

  9. (I can’t recall hearing it with “false” included.)

    Me neither, and I think Ran’s suggestion that “it’s from people trying to make it make sense” is plausible. Idioms, of course, very frequently don’t make sense in any obvious/logical way (cf. “head over heels”).

  10. The expression uses a dry, technical term to humorous effect. I’m imagining one of O’Henry’s affable con-men using this kind of language to impress the rubes.

    There must be other expressions of that kind, but the only ones I am coming up with are nautical-based euphemisms, like “three sheets to the wind”.

  11. I found this very funny, because I have never heard anyone ever say this that I can remember. Thanks for the heads up.

  12. Charles Perry says:

    Along the same lines, in the late 19th-century comic song “The Bowery” (“the Bowery, the Bowery, I’ll never go there anymore”) a greenhorn is suckered into buying “a box of socks” and then finds he has only purchased the box. Without the socks.

  13. Brit here. I’ve heard “bill of goods” to mean, um, a bill of goods. Never heard it in the false sense.

    Is the “sold a …” a necessary part of the false sense? As in “sold a pup”.

    The Oxford online says of ‘sell’: “British A disappointment, typically one arising from being deceived as to the merits of something.”

  14. Is the “sold a …” a necessary part of the false sense?

    I’m pretty sure it is.

  15. When the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn do their Ubu-Roi-ish theater performance, the audience screams “Sold!” meaning that they have been cheated out of their tickets. And then there’s

    Jocky of Norfolk, be not so bold
    For Dickon thy master is bought and sold.

    warning the Earl of Norfolk on the eve of battle that King Richard III had been betrayed by his supporters.

  16. I always took it to mean you got the bill of goods but not the goods themselves.

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with being sold a pup, unless it means something like you thought you were getting a fully trained sheepdog but instead you got an untrained puppy.

  17. I’m stuck on the expression “to be sold down the river”. There is a likewise transportation connotation to the idea of a bill of goods. Has to be a 19th century mercantile American-ism?

  18. I always assumed that “to be sold down the river” meant for a Black American slave to be sold to an owner further down the Mississippi and further away from the free states.

  19. Y is correct, or at least that’s how I’ve always understood it.

  20. I don’t think the problem with being “sold down the river” was that it placed a slave farther away from freedom. It was that slaves in the border states were more likely to be house servants than in the deep south, where plantation agriculture relied on large numbers of field slaves.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    “head over heels”

    “Heels over head” would make sense as indicating “hurrying so much that you lose balance”, and it would be suspiciously similar to the German saying that is explained in that way, Hals über Kopf “neck over head”.

  22. Plenty of plantation agriculture in Virginia in the upper South. But it’s true that in the decades before the Civil War, the main cash crop of Virginia was the slaves themselves.

  23. @ran yours is a misleading ngrams query. Better is this:

    which, although not ideally analogous due to the limitations of the tool (ngrams conks out at 5grams), removes a bunch of irrelevant hits (e.g. “I sold a bill of $1000 to Robb.”) while probably not including too many false positives on the “false bill of goods” side (assuming this is restricted to the same expression), and suggesting a conclusion that would only be bolstered if said false positives were removed. And, there is likely even a little further comparative downside to the “+false” curve since it will capture e.g. “it sells us a false bill of Goods…”.

  24. While it aptly fits the slavery story (and it’s popular American evocation), I believe there are earlier attestations to mean putting someone in a hazardous situation through betrayal or duplicity.

  25. I know the phrase (sans “false”) but never use it. My equivalents are “sell [someone] a pup” and “buy a pig in a poke”.

    I have just now looked up that “poke” =~ “poche”. I can’t pair “sell” with “pig”, or “buy” with “pup”. Idioms, eh?

  26. I’ve always thought that buying a pig in a poke indicates foolishness on the part of the buyer, who is spending money on something without verifying what he’s getting. Selling a bill of goods, on the other hand, implies deviousness on the part of the seller.

    On the selling or buying of pups I have no idea.

  27. Never heard the “bill of goods” expression, but I guess it must have taken a similar route of pejoration as “temper” and “attitude”. If you mainly hear “attitude” in contexts like “I don’t like your attitude”, you’ll likely analyse it as inherently negative, hence “He’s got attitude” etc. Similarly for developments in “entitled / entitlement”, from (neutral/positive) “entitlement” via “[unjustified] sense of entitlement” to the current plainly negative sense.

  28. Greg Pandatshang introduced a German expression I’d never heard: Sitz im Leben. Everybody here talked about it implicitly, or using different terms: context, situation etc. It’s a peculiar expression, a little precious and awkward at first glance. But after reading the WiPe article I get the sense that it is intended to mean “use context as an uninterpreted situation” in contrast to “use context of ideas and associations”. Can anyone say more about this ?

    Sitz im Leben

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Not me. It certainly sounds like the kind of expression philosophers trying to express their thoughts come up with, though.

  30. Michael Hendry says:

    Breffni (11:04am):
    Yes, unadjectived ‘attitude’ often has a negative connotation. One extended example is a country-music song by Hank Williams, Jr. entitled “Attitude Adjustment”. Lyrics will be found here. (In general, I much prefer the songs of Hank Williams, Sr. or even Hank Williams III, but this one from the second-generation HW is not bad.)

  31. Michael Hendry says:

    I wonder if ‘sold a bill of goods’ might go back to the practice alluded to in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure IV.iii. The speaker is Pompey Bum, sent to jail for something like pimping, commenting on all the others he sees there and knows from Mistress Overdone’s bawdy house, and his first (and most extended) example is the one I’m thinking of:

    “I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.”

    I’m away from home and all my Shakespeare books, but here’s a bit of 100-year-old (? forgot to check date) commentary (edited by Samuel Weller Singer, Charles Symmons, and Edmond Malone) from Google Books that agrees pretty well with what I recall reading in more up-to-date editions:

    “It was the practice of money-lenders in Shakspeare’s time, as well as more recently, to make advances partly in goods and partly in cash. The goods were to be resold generally at an enormous loss upon the cost price, and of these goods it appears that brown paper and ginger often formed a part. This custom is illustrated by numerous extracts from cotemporary [sic] writers, in the Variorum Shakspeare. In Green’s Defence of Coney-catching, 1592; ‘if he borrow a hundred pound, he shall have forty in silver, and three-score in wares; as lute-strings, hobby-horses, or brown paper,’ etc. ‘Which when the poor gentleman came to sell again, he could not make threescore and ten in the hundred beside the usury.’ – Quip for an upstart Courtier, 1620.”

    I’m guessing this started as a way of getting around strict legal limits on interest rates, turning (e.g.) a nominal 10% interest rate into an effective 50% rate or even higher. I’m not sure whether Rash is the buyer or the seller here. Five marks – apparently 3 1/3 pounds – is not much compared to 197 pounds, which suits a very stupid buyer, if that’s all he got for the commodities. Or perhaps he got his five marks in cash, with paper and ginger supposedly worth 197 pounds, and took on a debt of 200 pounds that he would have to repay in cash.

    On the other hand, I would have thought the seller would be the criminal here, the buyer only a fool. Perhaps he lost so much in the deal he couldn’t pay his other debts and went to jail for them? Confusing. If anyone’s still interested when I get back to my books (maybe Sunday, maybe next Thursday) I’ll add more. Or perhaps others have the resources (and interest) to answer these questions before then.

    I don’t know what the deal is with ginger and old women, either, but that has nothing to do with the question at hand. Not that that has ever stopped Languagehatters from discussing a topic . . . .

  32. Michael Hendry says:

    Hmmm. It just occurred to me that “nine score and seventeen pounds” might be the weight of the brown paper and old ginger, not their value. Complications upon complications . . . .

  33. David Marjanović says:

    I’m more prepared to believe that ginger was worth a lot more than its weight in sterling silver than to believe that 197 pounds of old ginger existed in any one spot in England around that time…

  34. The mark is the old mark pound of 8 ounces, as opposed to the troy at 12. Sixteen shillings to the mark, six marks to the thaler, modo Germani.

    As late as the seventies the fee for changing your name in Denmark was 33.33 kroner, carried over from 100 marks in pre-1875 currency because it was written in the law and laws are hard to change.

  35. On the 1950s British TV show (replayed in America) Robin Hood, prices were always given in marks. It suddenly strikes me that this was probably to avoid confusing the young British viewer, for whom prices in pounds would have sounded ridiculously small.

  36. Greg Pandatshang says:


    Thank you, that’s well said. This expression is perfect for me, since I am also a little precious and awkward at first glance. I think the point of “Sitz im Leben” is that in order to understand the point a text is trying to make, you must put yourself in the shoes of the author. A simple example is that if an author writes “don’t do X”, then they are very likely in some kind of situation where people are doing X and the author wants them to stop (although, of course, there are alternative scenarios, e.g. the author has an irrational fear of X based on their own inner demons). “Sitz im Leben” is normally used in situations where the text is known but the authorship is obscure, so we have to go back and try to figure out what the Sitz im Leben would be that fits with the text (as opposed to, for instance, a situation where we already know about James Joyce’s life and want to use what we know to gain insights about Ulysses).

  37. Michael Hendry:

    One of the problems in Shakespeare’s time was that there was no small change.

    An unskilled laborer made 4d a day and the smallest coin was a halfpenny. It’s hard to compare such different societies, but comparing it to someone who makes minimum wage, a halfpenny was the equivalent of about $7 in modern terms. So various items were in circulation for small purchases, one of which was lute strings.

    It would seem though that if one had a largish quantity of items of small value that were not legal tender, their relative value would decrease. There is an excellent discussion in Radford’s classic paper.

    197 pounds in money would have been a pretty good annual income in those days. 197 pounds of ginger by weight is a lot of ginger.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    David M: “Heels over head” would make sense as indicating “hurrying so much that you lose balance”, and it would be suspiciously similar to the German saying that is explained in that way, Hals über Kopf “neck over head”.

    This reminds me of a strange expression in French (perhaps dated now): prendre ses jambes à son cou, literally ‘to take one’s legs to one’s neck’, meaning “to start running as fast as possible” (usually to escape some undesirable situation). This must refer to the starting position of a runner in a race, with the body bent forward, the hands close to the ground and the head lowered, so that the head and neck are brought quite close to the legs. But the saying implies the reverse, that the legs are brought close to the neck, which is perhaps the impression the fast runner’s position creates in the spectator.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    David M: “Heels over head” would make sense as indicating “hurrying so much that you lose balance”, and it would be suspiciously similar to the German saying that is explained in that way, Hals über Kopf “neck over head”.

    This reminds me of a strange expression in French (perhaps dated now): prendre ses jambes à son cou, literally ‘to take one’s legs to one’s neck’, meaning “to start running very fast” (usually to escape some undesirable situation). This must refer to the starting position of a runner in a race, with the body bent forward, the hands close to the ground and the head lowered, so that the head and neck are brought quite close to the legs. A fast runner in a short race maintains this generally lower position while the spectator sees the legs moving at breakneck speed.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Sorry, I did not mean to duplicate my comment. Just as I was going to post the first one, the last sentence had disappeared from the draft window, so I rewrote the ending to include a different sentence. Then after posting the second draft I saw that the first sentence did show up in the first draft, which had indeed been posted. Strange!

  41. prendre ses jambes a son cou — German has die Beine under die Arme zu nehmen, while Danish has tage benene på nakken. But I think these are jocular (now bleached) reinforcements of expressions meaning ‘move your legs’ = ‘hurry’. Danish has the same ‘escape’ connotation as the French.

    In Danish at least there was an older tage benene med sig in the same meaning, and tage noget på nakken is a general expression for carrying something (heavy) on your back (with a connotation of taking it along on a journey).

    How much of all this that is native, and how much calqued from French, is probably hard to know.

  42. The smallest coin was a farthing (a quarter penny) which was minted from Saxon times until 1956 and remained in circulation until 1971.

  43. is the go-to site for very-long-range currency comparisons. It shows that 4d in 1601 is about £50 today in terms of labor earnings (the amount of income relative to the earnings of an average worker). By comparison, the actual daily wages of unskilled labor today, assuming an 8-hour day, is about £65.

    So it’s as if the smallest available coin, corresponding to the ¼d, were worth £3.

  44. Judges 15:8, וַיַּךְ אוֹתָם שׁוֹק עַל-יָרֵךְ lit. ‘and he struck them, calf upon thigh’, by one reasonable interpretation knocking riders off their horses so they fell onto their backs with their legs bent.

  45. January First-of-May says:

    Historically speaking, a farthing is a cut quarter of a penny, but actual silver farthings (of hilariously tiny weight) were sometimes also made (though IIRC that went out of use by the 16th century), and IIRC a few are attested also cut (for even smaller denominations).

    Incidentally, in the 16th century Russian system, the smallest silver coin was the polushka (1/4 kopek), of roughly similarly huge value; so a lot of tiny coppers (known as “pulo”, and of uncertain relative denomination – said to vary from 50 to 120 to the kopek) were apparently made well into the 1560s, for the needs of the lower-end commerce.
    Not sure what they used after the 1560s; except for a brief small issue of 1/8 kopek coins in the year 1700, coins denominated at under 1/4 kopek were never made again in Russian history.

  46. According to what I was able to find out, farthings were not minted during the Elizabethan era. Of course people could have cut them, as January First-of-May says.

    Drinking houses used to make their own tokens to give as change. I remember that a big cache of them was found in Dublin perhaps 20 years ago. There were great protests from tavern-keepers when the copper penny was introduced, because with the tokens customers would have to come back to the same place to spend them.

  47. Michael Hendry says:

    As I recall, the Unabomber was identified when his brother recognized some familiar turns of phrase in the manifestos published in newspapers. One of the clues that brother and terrorist were the same person was that both wrote “heels over head” and “eat your cake and have it too” because they (or rather he) found the usual versions of the cliches illogical. (I should probably check this on the web, but I’ll go with my memories.)

  48. A discussion elsewhere reached the conclusion that “buying a bill of goods” is bad because you’re not being very discriminating. You’re not just picking out a few things from the ship’s cargo that you actually need or that are particularly well-priced, you’re saying “give me the whole lot”.

Speak Your Mind