QA: The origin of “fit the bill”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the bill, please…

Q: Hi AWC, where does saying “fit the bill” come from, as in “we were looking for someone strong and you fit the bill”?

A: Good question.

Q: Is there someone named Bill I should be asking? An unpaid bill somewhere perhaps?

A: None of those things actually. The phrase “fit the bill” is listed by Macquarie Dictionary as meaning “to suit; be what is required”. It is sometimes also seen as “fill the bill” – and that might give you a few more clues to its origin.

Q: Why? Is there someone named Phil I should be asking?

A: Nope. The “fill” part was key in the context of “filling in” for someone. The saying originated in this form during the mid-19th century in US theatrical slang.

Q: Sounds like an important ‘stage’ in history. Chortle.

A: Yes, very good, stage. The concept of a “bill” had been around in the world of theatre since the 1670s – initially as a “playbill”, which was a placard designed to advertise a play. It would be followed by the term “show-bill” in the early 1800s – meaning essentially the same thing; an advertisement for any kind of performance.

Q: This Bill chap sure did get a lot of attention…

A: Anyway, as the 19th century progressed, “show-bill” was simply shortened to “bill” – typically a list of acts or performers appearing in the show. It’s no different to a music festival poster today.

Q: Oh yes, those make great eye-charts. If you can read the headliner acts, that’s good, but some of the smaller local bands can be hard to make out…

A: Indeed. Anyway, the world of theatre in the mid-1800s was not a lot different to today, in terms of the chaos backstage. And when producers were short on acts – perhaps due to sickness or cancellations, they were forced to “fill the bill” with acts to round out the evening’s entertainment.

Q: Aha! “We need someone who can sing and dance and not die of consumption – and you fill the bill!”

A: Yes, although they probably didn’t say it quite that way. Now, as certain acts became more well known, the concept of “billing” became its own thing by the 1870s. This referred to the importance – the ‘biggest font size on your music festival poster’ kind of thing.

Q: Ahhh okay!

A: Yet, by the early 1880s, to “fill the bill” took on a different meaning – it meant that you were a big enough star to be the ONLY name on the poster. You alone filled the bill!

Q: The 1880s version of Harry Styles or Ed Sheeran!

A: Exactly.

Q: Surely that was confusing having TWO meanings for the same phrase?

A: Well it was all slang anyway, and people had more important things to worry about back then, like not dying of smallpox. But it’s likely that it did have something to do with “FIT the bill” rising in prominence. This was particularly true with those who saw the word “bill” as its older meaning of a list of required things (like an order) rather than its niche meaning of advertising posters… For most, “fitting a bill” made more sense to them, i.e. meeting requirements.

Q: And the meaning stuck too!

A: That’s right. Someone who was able to fill in a place on the bill (meeting the producer’s requirements) was now said to “fit the bill”. By the early 1900s it was being used figuratively, not just for shows. In the meantime, “fIlling the bill” was kept for just the big stars.

Q: I thought that was called getting “top billing”?

A: Well, eventually it WAS. But that term didn’t come along until the late 1920s. 

Q: So then “fill the bill” was out of a job?

A: Kind of. It didn’t really fit the bill as “top billing” anymore, but it still meant the person who could do the job best. So it returned to that meaning. 

Q: But surely, “fit the bill” had top billing in THAT role now?

A: Correct. The world had fallen in love with “fitting the bill” and remember, its meaning was now being used figuratively for ANY job/task. And so, night after night, “fill the bill” was forced to look on from the shadows backstage like a shunned understudy, waiting once more for its time in the spotlight…

Q: Wow, that’s rather dramatic!

A: Yes, sorry. It’s an idiomatic phrase and has no feelings. These days, “fit the bill” continues to be more popular worldwide, however dictionaries still list both phrases – each with similar meanings. You’re more likely to see “fill the bill” used in North America.

Q: I wonder what happened to the original Phil and Bill – and if they ever performed on stage again…

A: Have you been listening to ANYTHING we’ve said?

Q: Yes, of course. So, to recap, “fit the bill” started life as “fill the bill” in US theatre slang, and both continue to mean similar things today – although you’d recommend going with the more popular “fit the bill”.

A: That’s right. It fits the bill for a lot more things.

Q: Great! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and console my stage designer friend who just got fired by her theatre manager.

A: I hope she’s okay.

Q: Yeah. They said she didn’t make a scene…

A: Groan. Get out!

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