How a “bubble” becomes a “bill”

A legislative bill ultimately comes from the Latin bulla, “bubble,” later likened to round “seals” authenticating important documents.  

After drafting it in secrecy, Republican senators released their healthcare bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, already being criticized for its steep cuts to Medicaidand tax cuts for the wealthy. As we debate the bill, let’s take a closer look at the origin of this most legislative of words.

Seal attached to the Royal Letters Patent of Henry VI, 1442 (King’s College, Cambridge). Wax impressions of seals were attached by cords or parchment to authenticate documents, sometimes literally sealing them like modern envelope glue, King’s College explains.

Fitting the bill

The word bill is evidenced as early as the 1370s, when it referred to a “written document,” originally sealed. Seal is a key word: Passing into English from the Anglo-French bille and Anglo-Latin billa, bill comes from the Medieval Latin bulla, “seal,” which developed from the Classical Latin bulla, “bubble.” (A bird’s bill is unrelated.)

The story of bill, then, is a story of metaphor. Bubbles are round, and so Classical Latin’s bulla extended to various knobby objects, like the boss of a shield or an amulet worn around the neck. As they were typically circular, Medieval Latin adopted bulla for “seals” that authenticate documents, going on to refer to such sealed documents themselves—like papal bulls. Given the importance of such paperwork, bulla, by the time it evolved to the Anglo-French bille, signified any official or formal document.

Double bill?

The Barnhart Dictionary of English Etymology, though, adds a few riders to the origin of bill, as it were. It maintains that the Anglo-French bille joined the Old French bille (“stick of wood,” billet) with bulle (“decree,” also derived from bulla) just as the Anglo-Latin fused the Medieval Latin billia (“tree trunk”) and bulla. Barnhart then takes the French bille and Latin billia back to a Gaulish loan for “tree.” These blends may account for bill’s sound, following the form of bille/billia, and sense, following from bulla.

Meanwhile, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) traces Latin’s bulla back to the Proto-Indo-European *beu-, “to blow or swell,” as round objects so appear. Latin’s bulla, the AHD notes, also yields English’s bullet (via French boule, “ball”) and bulletin (via Italian bulleta, “document, voting slip”). 

Picking up the bill

By 1420, bill named an “invoice” due for goods or services and by 1480, a public “advertisement” or “poster” (hence playbill, double bill, and billboard). Legislative bills appeared by the early 1500s, from an earlier use of bill as a petition made to an authority. Bills as banknotes emerge in American English in the 1680s, with dollar bill specifically documented by 1774.

And speaking of healthcare bills, the Oxford English Dictionary explains that a bill of health, first attested in 1644, was originally an “official certificate given to the master of a vessel sailing from a port liable to infection, stating whether at the time any infectious disease existed on board or in the port.” For many—including Democrats, most healthcare professionals, great many Americans, and even some Republicans—the Senate healthcare bill does not get a clean bill of health.

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