We take a look at the etymology behind the dreaded word ‘bill’

Bill

The news that Apple is facing the world’s largest tax bill prompts an investigation into why we use the word ‘bill’ to refer to a statement of money owed. It turns out that the origins of ‘bill’ can be traced to the Latin word bulla, which means ‘a rounded lump or swelling’. In the days when official documents were sealed with lead, a bulla was the name for the round mass that formed the seal on a document, and it later came to refer to the document itself. Indeed, in the Roman Catholic Church the official documents issued by the Pope are still referred to as ‘papal bulls’. In later Latin, bulla became billa, and in English billa became bill. The word can still refer to various official documents, such as a proposed law that is brought before parliament, although it is now most commonly used for documents that request payment of money.

However, when we use the word ‘bill’ to talk about a bird’s beak, there is a quite different origin at work. In this sense, the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon bile. This is probably related to an Old High German word bil, meaning ‘pickaxe’, on account of a perceived resemblance between the shape of a beak and that of a sharp implement.

Other Articles

Advent and Advent Calendars

“The Lord Will Come and not be Slow”(John Milton) Ah, Advent! The season when children’s faces and some adults’ faces, too – mine, anyway – light up while, day by day, they open whatever kind of Advent calendar has come their way. I vividly remember, aged… Read More

Antarctica Day

This Thursday, 1 December, marks the annual Antarctica Day. If you’re wondering why such a day exists, its raison d’être is to celebrate the signing in 1959 of the Antarctic Treaty by the twelve countries then actively exploring the continent. The treaty recognised that this, the… Read More

Your essential guide to World Cup vocabulary

The weather outside is frightful, but for football fans the most delightful time of the year is upon us – admittedly a few months later than usual – as the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar this November. First played in 1930, the World Cup is an international association… Read More