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question as in the subject. Noticed such an expression at least in two occasions...

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  • I've always understood "it's on the house" as short for "it's to be put on the bill of the house, i.e. the bill of the pub's owner".
    – Law29
    May 16, 2016 at 20:44
  • TINSTAAFL
    – jejorda2
    May 16, 2016 at 20:59
  • @jejorda2; You mean TANSTAAFL. TINSTAAFL, as I heard it, means, "There Is No Such Thing As Free Love", which may be both true and important but is not relevant. May 16, 2016 at 22:16
  • 1
    @TimLymington -- Wouldn't that be TINSTHAFL??
    – Hot Licks
    May 17, 2016 at 22:47

3 Answers 3

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On the house is a synonym of free because of its usage in bars across the United States and other English speaking countries to describe free drinks. If the bartender said that a drink was on the house, He meant that the the drink was paid for (on the) by the bar (house). In essence when the bartender said on the house he meant he was giving you a free drink. The term gained popularity through frequent use in movies and books during the 20th century.

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From the Phrase Finder (originally an AmE expression).

On the house:

  • From the Oxford English Dictionary: "on the house: at the expense of the tavern, saloon, etc.; also transf. and fig. (orig. U.S.)...

  • 1889 Kansas City (Missouri) Times & Star 30 Nov., The first drink Thursday was 'on the house' in the leading saloons.

  • 1891 Times 12 Sept. 10/3 A tied house..is one..owned by a brewer for the sale of his goods.

  • 1934 J. A. LEE Children of Poor 26 'I must have a drink.' Here, have one on the house. 1944 AUDEN For Time Being 77 A voice I'd heard before, I think, Cried: 'This is on the House.'

  • 1958 M. DICKENS Man Overboard xiii. 214 Laundry and cleaning were on the house.

  • 1959 N. MAILER Advts. for Myself 95 One night just for the hell of it he has one on the house with the society gal, and she gets pregnant.

  • 1967 W. SOYINKA Kongi's Harvest 18 Daodu:... Naturally it's on the house. Secretary: No, thank you. I prefer to pay for my drinks.

Among these citations, the M. DIckens quote is an example of transferred or figurative meaning, and others probably are as well, in which the "house" is the host, and "on the house" just means "free of charge" or "my treat."

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Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for "on the house":

on the house At the expense of the establishment, as in This hotel serves an afternoon tea that's on the house. This idiom uses house in the sense of "an inn, tavern, or other building serving the public." {Late 1800s}

Presumably the phrasing "on the house" implies something like "on the house's dime" or "on the house's tab."

An Elephind search turns up an instance of "on the house" in the relevant sense from 12 years before 1889 (the earliest cited date in the OED, according to user66974's answer). From "The Insolence of Office," in the Weekly Union [South Carolina] Sentinel (September 21, 1877):

Yesterday afternoon two professional dead beats, known as spotters in the revenue department of the United States Government, went into a saloon kept by a respectable citizen and demanded an inspection of the cigar boxes. The clerk complied with their demand and showed up the cigar boxes, which were found to be regularly stamped. One of these officers then proposed to have drinks "on the house," a proposition which the house failed to agree to, whereupon the other beat remarked, never mind, I know the old ——, and I'll have him up in less than a week.

The sense of the expression "on the house" here appears to be exactly the same as it is today.

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