Bill is somewhat of an auto-antonym, since it can mean either a piece of paper which has positive monetary value (i.e. a note), or a piece of paper which has negative monetary value (though it only applies to a certain person). Maybe I'm reading too much into the usages, but it seems strange that the two meanings of bill are nearly opposite. Does anyone know why this is?

  • 1
    Note that the note meaning of bill is chiefly American: we would say five-dollar bill but not five-pound bill (and five-pound note but not five-dollar note). – Daniel Oct 17 '11 at 23:58
  • 2
    Any money owed by one entity is owed to another entity. Possibly the term originated before paper currency became as common as it is today. – Peter Shor Oct 18 '11 at 0:35
  • I don't think "autantonym" (aka "contronym") is a particularly useful term. The current case bill=money/debt is like weather=endure/erode. Two different meanings of a single root word diverge so much they can be seen as opposites. In other cases, like cleave=split/adhere, two different words just happen to have the same spelling. Interesting quirks of language, but I can't see why we need two technical terms for something so trivial. – FumbleFingers Oct 18 '11 at 2:35

Without doing too much research into this, the etymology of bill shows that the original usage was more like an official document at first.

"written statement," mid-14c., from Anglo-L. billa "list," from M.L. bulla "decree, seal, sealed document,"

This suggests that different people adopted the word to mean similar, but related, concepts. In fact, government currency is a form of money owed, in that (in the days of the Gold Standard) the government promised you the bill's face value in gold. Now it is more abstract but the terms are related, even if seemingly opposite.

  • So, in short, bill (note):government:me::bill (invoice):me:servicer -- Is that right? – Daniel Oct 18 '11 at 0:55
  • @drɱ65δ: yes, that is what I was trying to say. But I don't have something definitive to say if that is an intentional or coincidental overlap. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 18 '11 at 1:46

In general, this situation can arise for two main reasons:

(1) a word that originally meant a narrower concept diversifies to cover related concepts or specific connotations, and gradually over time the precise meanings of these once strongly related concepts can further diverge over time;

(2) what were once two separate words could merge due to sound changes or other phonological processes.

In this case, as mentioned in the answer above, it appears that effectively situation (1) has arisen: "bill" expanded from its original meaning of "official document" to cover various different specific connotations of "document" today, be it the "bill" put up by a "bill poster", the "bill" you pay for your meal, a "bill" of rights, a "dollar bill" etc.


A "bill" is an evidence the party A owes money to party B.

The "bill" that arrives in the mail from say, the phone company, is evidence that you owe money to the phone company.

A "bill" in the currency sense, is evidence that the government owes money to you. If you give the bill (instead of writing a check) to the phone company, the government then owes money to the phone company.

(This came about because "money" used to be gold and silver. In the U.S. the 16th Amendment to the Constitution gave the Federal government the authority to issue paper money as a substitute for metal. So (most people turned in their gold and silver and received paper "bills" (IOUs) in return.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.