Just give me something so I can refuse to pay it.
Dear Word Detective: Can you locate the origin of the usage of the term “check” to actually mean “bill,” as in “Check, please”? This has bugged me for years! It is a bill, paid by a check perhaps (though this is becoming more and more rare), and yet we refer to it as a check. Why, oh why? — Larame in CO.
My heavens. You folks get riled up about the strangest things. I’m usually less annoyed by the “check” in a restaurant than by what precedes it. For instance, whatever happened to food being served hot? It’s hot at my house, but in nine out of ten restaurants I wander into, it’s not even really warm. Am I really supposed to bring my own microwave?
“Check” is a very interesting word, and I actually touched on its origin in the course of explaining “rain check” last year. English acquired “check” in the early 14th century from the Old French “eschequier,” meaning “to threaten the king in a chess game,” a situation known in chess as “check.” A chess game ends when one player’s king is put “in check” and cannot escape capture, a predicament called “checkmate.” The term “check” comes ultimately from the Persian word “shah,” meaning “king” (as in the Shah of Iran) and “checkmate” comes from the related and very appropriate Arabic phrase for this grim situation, “shah mata” (“the king is dead”).
“Check” in English has acquired a wide range of non-chess meanings, mostly involving the senses of “impede or block” (as the king is blocked in chess) or “control.” We use this “control” sense when we speak of “checking” someone’s work, or “checking” financial accounts. Thus the “check” you may write to pay for your dinner was originally called that because it furnishes all parties with a “checkable” record of the transaction.
One of the meanings that “check” picked up in the 19th century was that of “token, proof of claim” (as in “hat check,” or “rain check,” originally guaranteeing admission to the re-staging of a sporting event that had been rained out). In practice, such “checks” were almost always small sheets of paper or cardboard, and in the mid-19th century people in the US began to call the summary of charges in a restaurant a “check,” probably because it was usually of similar size. In other words, we’ve been calling those things “checks” for more than 150 years.
So why not call that tally the waiter hands you a “bill”? Technically, it is. “Bill” has been used to mean “statement of account owed” since around 1400. Derived from the Medieval Latin “bulla,” meaning “seal” of the sort found on official documents, “bill” also has many meanings (including those enormous things they shove through Congress), but the sense of “official list” has been in use since Old English. And most of us get an “official list” of charges from the electric and gas companies every month, so “bill” in the “you owe us” sense is very much alive today.
My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that some restaurateur decided at some point that the word “bill” was a bit too blunt and vulgar a term to inflict on diners and that somewhat more subtle “check” sounded more refined. It was probably the same guy who decided we’d rather be called “guests” than “customers.” Personally, you can call me Elroy the Wonder Horse as long as the food is even remotely hot.