I have a problem with the term tax returns regarding its genesis and use in international communication.

1) Genesis and logic

I do not understand the logic behind it. As far as I see, "tax returns" are actually tax declarations, i.e. a set of documents filed by e.g. an individual and sent to the government's financial authorities to declare his/her income, so that the government can decide on this individual's income tax. If this is correct, why is this called a "return"? Nothing gets returned here. A document gets handed out. There is even not money to be returned, rather there will be money to be paid. (Exception: German employees, on filing their tax declaration often get back parts of taxes paid on their behalf by the employer because employers are obliged to send part of the monthly salary directly to the financial authorities, and depending on circumstances, employees can get back overpaid taxes by the end of the year. This, I would say, is indeed literally a tax return.)

2) Usage

Clearly "tax return" is in use in the USA. Question: could or should I use it also in international contexts (everywhere outside the US)? Or should I better use a more generic term such as tax declaration?

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    One of the dictionary meanings of return is, in fact, a legal declaration. Tax returns and election returns are probably the only returns that an ordinary citizen encounters with any regularity, however. – choster Jan 4 at 15:23
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    The exception described in the parentheses is not specific to Germany: in many other countries, the government collects estimated taxes during the year, and then, after the tax returns are filed, refunds (returns) any overpayments. – jsw29 Jan 4 at 18:07
  • @jsw Yes, of course.I mentioned the German example simple as exactly this: an example. – Christian Geiselmann Jan 5 at 21:28

See this definition for return (noun):

An official report or statement submitted in response to a formal demand.
‘census returns’

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to 1618

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    The dictionary entry confirms that it is correct to use the term in this sense, but the OP already knows that well. The OP is asking about 'the logic behind it': why is it called a return, given that nothing actually gets returned? – jsw29 Jan 4 at 17:58
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    @jsw29 Word meanings don't require "logic," however, at least when the meaning of words has shifted over time since their introduction. According to the OED, the sense of return as a report or declaration is an extension of return referring to a report of election (which would be delivered by a sheriff returning to court), from Anglo-Norman retourner for submitting a writ to a court with a report, from vulgar Latin retorno meaning to deter or turn back, ultimately from tornus, Latin for lathe. – choster Jan 4 at 21:41
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    @choster, of course, word meanings often develop without any 'logic' (i.e. often the answer to the question why we use some word in a certain way is: we just do), but in many cases there is an explanation of how different meanings of a word are related; one may be wondering whether this is such a case, and your comment suggests that it is. Why not post the comment as an answer? – jsw29 Jan 5 at 4:45
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    @choster Yes, when I wrote "logic" I meant it rather in the sense of "the original thought behind the word". With your description of referring a report of election to court you seem to give a very plausible explanation based on mediaevel society. Could you elaborate a bit? What election would be meant? Villagers electing their spokesman vis-a-vis the regional strongman (or aristocrat, if you prefer), or a king? Or parishes electing a priest (which in some parts of Christianity was common practice, at least theoretically), and sending a messenger to court to give notice about the new cleric? – Christian Geiselmann Jan 5 at 21:33

It is used outside the US

here is a UK sub reddit using it:


It's probably more prevalent in the US because the US tax system requires more people to do one (most people in the UK will not have to submit a tax return at all)

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