Bill Of Goods

Why is this considered negative?

A “bill of goods” is essentially a receipt. When you buy something, you get a bill of goods to prove that you paid for it.

However, you should also receive the merchandise, in addition to the receipt. If you buy a car, you get two things: (1) the receipt (the “bill of goods”), and (2) the car itself. So, to be “sold a bill of goods” means you just got the receipt to say you bought the thing, but you didn’t get the thing itself. You were sold something worthless, essentially – the seller got your money, and all you got was the paperwork to prove you paid for nothing.

And this is where the negative connotation came from: a bill of goods is nothing. If you voted for a candidate who promised a lot of policies but delivered none of them, then all you got was a bill of goods for your vote, you didn’t actually get the policies you hoped to bring about.

Word Detective says this about how the phrase morphed over time:

Just how this transformation happened is something of a mystery; there does not appear to have been any famous case of fraud that might have made the phrase notorious. It’s more likely that the negative use began as a rueful acknowledgment of falling for a fraud which became generalized as it spread in vernacular use.

Why I Looked It Up

I had heard the phrase for years, and knew what it meant, but not why.

This is item #57 in a sequence of 502 items.

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