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Why is a restaurant bill called a "check" (as in "Check, please!")?

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It's one of the definitions of check: 25. a slip or ticket showing the amount owed, especially a bill for food or beverages consumed. –  Daniel Oct 25 '11 at 13:36
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@drɱ65δ; why so many downvotes? Questions that ask why and are tagged with etymology are looking for etymology of the word. This is not gen. ref as even etymonline.com/index.php?term=check&allowed_in_frame=0 does not explain it fully –  Unreason Oct 25 '11 at 14:19
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Do you think I have the ability to downvote 4 times on a post? (I just upvoted.) My comment was merely to point out that there is a separate definition for this usage, and it's not a cheque-sort-of-check. –  Daniel Oct 25 '11 at 14:21
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@drɱ65δ: Sorry for that, it came out completely and utterly wrong and should have been addressed to down-voters. –  Unreason Oct 25 '11 at 14:29
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3 Answers

This is a good question, and the general references (Online Etymology Dictionary, etc.) are not helpful in getting a definite answer. That is, they give the general etymology of check (it arose from chess, and "All the other senses seem to have developed from this one"), but not of this particular "restaurant bill" sense. Even the Oxford English Dictionary does not explain it; however its classification is suggestive. It says:

14. A means to ensure accuracy, correctness, security from fraud, etc.: as
†a. The counterfoil of a bank bill, draft, etc.
.
b. A token, usually a memorandum of receipt, a ticket, or piece of metal […] used for the purpose of identification, or as evidence of ownership or title: given, e.g. to the owner of luggage on a railway (as in U.S.), or to one who temporarily leaves luggage, cloaks, […] etc., etc.
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c. A restaurant bill. Chiefly U.S.
1869 A. D. Whitney … I let her settle for the dinner checks.
1910 ‘O. Henry’ … Through an arched opening‥you thrust your waiter's check and the money.
1916 VarietyInspectors‥ordered drinks and paid their check just before one.
1937 R. Stout … I‥found the waitress and got my check from her.

(Looking under cheque, it seems to have arisen as "a differentiated spelling" of check in sense 14a, so the modern meaning of cheque (or American [bank] check) is different from 14c.)

So to answer your question, we don't know exactly, but the heading under which the OED has put the word suggests that they think it came from "a means to ensure (check) correctness". It's not entirely clear what the restaurant bill is meant to check (perhaps the diner checks that he/she is being asked for the correct amount). This listing is still not as definite as an explicit pronouncement on the origin of this sense, so something concrete from a real expert would be useful.

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It seems the mechanisms by which cheque/check arrived at its plethora of current meanings are somewhat murky, to say the least. Obviously rain check is "one of the family", but for some reason Brits have taken that particular one up with US spelling. I think we're in the process of trying to create two distinct words, because the various meanings have diverged so far, but we're not doing a very good job of this so far! –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 16:57
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@FumbleFingers: In fact, if you look at the OED's quotes, those before (say) 1700 seem to use cheque and check in free variation, in all senses. :-) So I'd say that the well-intentioned British attempt to spin off cheque into a different word has not been ideally excecuted. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 25 '11 at 17:02
    
Yeah, I think you've just rephrased my thinking better than I did. Bearing in mind check the bleeding, etc. at the other end of the semantic spectrum, we Brits really ought to have grasped the nettle and insisted on rain cheque. We just bottled it. –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 17:11
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Now that you mention it, a restaurant check and a hat or coat check seem very similar ideas to me: both are a piece of paper identifying the items under consideration. I have always thought it odd that the bill at a restaurant and the payment of that bill can both be called a "check". –  Jay Oct 25 '11 at 18:11
    
@Jay: Yes, in America you can pay the check with a check, and also pay the bill with bills. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 25 '11 at 18:58
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In the etymonline entry for check you can find:

c.1700 "a token used to check against loss or theft" (surviving in hat check)

Maybe it was first used to call the waiter to bring you your hat (coat, cane, etc.) and the bill; in the "olden" days, when it was customary to wear hats, it was not unusual for restaurants to have hat racks at which people would leave their hats.

Another possibility is that the guest wanted to check the bill, before paying for it.

No references to support either theory.

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I think your guest wanting to check the bill probably comes closest to answering OP's question. I'd see it as meaning the guest wants a checklist of what he's eaten & drunk. –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 22:05
    
@FumbleFingers, check the checklist and check things off with a checkmark; supported by international gesture for 'Check, please!' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gestures –  Unreason Oct 25 '11 at 22:12
    
@Unreason, although Wiki lists a tick as among the symbols, it doesn't give any suggestion as to how common that is compared to the other gestures. I'm only familiar with the scribble, which could be interpreted as a request to write out the bill. –  Peter Taylor Oct 26 '11 at 19:40
    
@PeterTaylor, scribble is my first concrete association, too. However, I think the sign itself is just a symbol for writing. Any writting. The meanings: lets get paper, write, check off, sign cheques, credit card slips, whatever, I am done here, want to go, come take the money, etc.. –  Unreason Oct 26 '11 at 22:36
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According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the usage of the word "check" comes from chess, as in "check mate", when the game is over:

early 14c., "A call in chess noting one's move has placed his opponent's king in immediate peril," from O.Fr. eschequier "a check at chess" (also "chess board, chess set"), from eschec, from V.L. *scaccus, from Arabic shah, from Pers. shah "king," the principal piece in a chess game (see shah; also cf. checkmate). When the king is in check a player's choices are limited. Meaning widened from chess to general sense of "adverse event" (c.1300), "sudden stoppage" (early 14c.), and by c.1700 to "a token used to check against loss or theft" (surviving in hat check) and "a check against forgery or alteration," which gave the modern financial use of "bank check, money draft" (first recorded 1798 and often spelled cheque), probably influenced by exchequeur. Meaning "pattern of squares" (c.1400) is short for checker. Checking account is attested from 1923, Amer.Eng.

I assume that either as Unreason said, this could be asking for a "hat check", or more simply, just asking for the end of the meal, since check is the end of a chess game.

It's also extremely possible that it's related to the usage of the word "check" in American English to refer to a form of payment ("cheque" in British English)

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This applies to cheque (bank cheque / bank check), but the meaning in a restaurant bill is a different sense of "check". –  ShreevatsaR Oct 25 '11 at 16:20
    
I think it's possible it could be both; i.e. the check is the "sudden stoppage" of the meal / business transaction. –  Josh Oct 25 '11 at 16:27
    
Unless we find a citation, that is just speculation, right? –  ShreevatsaR Oct 25 '11 at 16:29
    
@ShreevatsaR That is correct... this is purely my assumption based on that etymology resource. I would be very interested in a more authoritative answer myself! –  Josh Oct 25 '11 at 16:37
    
I think both bank cheque and restaurant bill meanings came via checkmate/game-over -> bring to an end -> verify final position -> summary of amounts owed. The bank/restaurant contexts are really the same - except in one they owe you, in the other you owe them. Which does kinda make a difference, but I'm wondering if any Americans really do use spelling to distinguish between them? We Brits always use cheque for banks, and our restaurants only ever have bills anyway. –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 16:48
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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 29 '12 at 16:24

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