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VOL. 127 | NO. 87 | Thursday, May 03, 2012

Vic Fleming

Examining the Origins of Bill, Check

By Vic Fleming

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“Bill!” Have you ever noticed that in comic strips the punch line is often “Check please!”? Someone is at a restaurant, hoping to maintain control over a situation. It spins out of control … “Check please!”

In “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis, it’s uttered so often by the character called Goat that one might argue it’s his tag line. The phrase is common enough to have its own page at tvtropes.org, where it’s called the “usual punch line uttered at the end of any sustained mayhem in a bar or restaurant … by whatever major character either instigated or was caught up in the melee.” It’s sometimes said by a background character who survives the disaster unscathed.”

Among many instances cited is this exchange from “The Sarah Silverman Show”:

“Brian: Check please!

“Steve: We already paid!

“Brian: I know. It’s what you say after restaurant weirdness.”

In Merriam-Webster definition 8(c) of “check” is “a slip indicating the amount due,” with a note that “bill” is a synonym.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 14(c) is “A means to ensure accuracy, correctness, security from fraud, etc.: as … a restaurant bill,” with the notation “Chiefly U.S.” And a citation to this usage as early as 1910, in an O. Henry story.

This definition leads repeatedly to comedic dialogue about the need to cash a check before paying a check – With cash because the restaurant doesn’t accept checks (in payment of their checks). In which case you may pay a bill with bills.

But why is a restaurant bill or a bar tab called a check in the first place? At answers.yahoo.com, the “Best Answer chosen by voters” to this question was submitted by one Cliff (he got two of three votes cast). Cliff says this usage precedes “passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act, when restaurants were not regulated as to the purity and wholesomeness of the meal served.” Immediately, I’m skeptical.

Cliff continues: “In those days, before a customer … was required to pay for the meal, he … would be ‘checked’ by the … proprietor to see whether any health issues had arisen [due to] food that may have been contaminated. Upon assurances … that their health had not been endangered or compromised, the meal would be then paid for.”

If Cliff had stopped there, I might have bought it. But he went on: “[E]ven today, whether you realize it or not, the cashier ‘checks’ your appearance for any signs of health deterioration before accepting payment. If the cashier fails to provide an adequate review of your appearance … remind him/her to conduct a ‘Check.’ They’ll know what you’re referring to.”

That’s a joke if ever I’ve read one. But if you know differently, please let me hear from you. After researching it at some length on the Web, I’ve got nothing. It’s something to think about, though, the next time someone offers to split the check with you.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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