Idiomation shared the history behind foot the bill and fit the bill. This time around, we’re looking at the history behind fill the bill, and what this expression means. To fill the bill is to supply exactly what is needed to meet the needs of a specific situation.
On November 19, 2015 the HR Gazette website published an article about HR managers, and how to pick the one that’s best for your company. The article discussed non-traditional graduates as opposed to traditional college students, and the advantages and disadvantages therein. The article was titled, “Hiring An HR Manager: Can You Fill The Bill?”
On February 1, 2000, the Latin Trade magazine decided to publish an article about fraudulent companies in South America. Costa Rica correspondent Julie Dulude’s story began with an article published in the magazine Business Insurance that had been published in March 1999, and focused on a business calling itself Camelot Insurance Company, S.A. The reporter’s investigation turned up a handful of companies with Camelot in their names. The problem is that addresses are listed as local landmarks followed by compass directions, and so every lead was investigated by the reporter. When she used the idiom, this is what she wrote.
Finding the next two addresses turned out to be a wild goose chase. The tenants at an apartment complex that seemed to me “exactly 75 meters west of the Colegio Metodista” knew nothing. “Ay corazon, since the school occupies the whole block, it could be on either this street or the parallel one,” offered the gardener.
Next door was a vacant lot and across the street a cemetery, so I headed for the parallel street. A yellow house next door to a construction site appeared to fill the bill. “Let me find my glasses,” said a middle-aged woman who came out to help. And then: “The problem is that it doesn’t say whether they mean the elementary or the high school. You see, the Colegio Metodista has a high school in Sabanilla, which is considered part of San Pedro.”
Filling the bill is something that was known nearly 100 years earlier. In the book “The Lair of the White Worm” by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker (8 November 1847 – 20 April 1912) published in 1911 the expression fill the bill was used.
There is only one other person whose good opinion she could wish to keep — Edgar Caswall. He is the only one who fills the bill. Her lies point to other things besides the death of the African. She evidently wanted it to be accepted that his falling into the well was his own act. I cannot suppose that she expected to convince you, the eye-witness; but if she wished later on to spread the story, it was wise of her to try to get your acceptance of it.
Nearly twenty years earlier, in 1890 a passionate Letter to the Editor was published in Volume 34 of “Manford’s Magazine” reader James Billings of Hico, Texas. The title of the letter was “Fill The Bill” and Mr. Billings to the expression fill the bill to task and wrote a passionate letter on the subject.
Shall that sinner be given up, as a subject beyond the reach of the mercy, and the love and power of God? Is there no arm of infinite love, and goodness that can be stretched out to life this poor soul into the life of repentance, and to feel God’s forgiveness? Is there no balm of mercy in Gilead to save? Is there not mercy and goodness enough in God’s divine purposes to fill the bill, in every case? God is love; and as it is an inexhaustible fountain, there is compassion sufficient to fill all bills, to meet all demands, and redeem all souls.
SIDE NOTE 1: James Billings (15 November 1811 – 2 November 1898) was the new Universalist missionary in Texas, and had a noticeable presence as both a Universalist minister and a publisher. In Hico, Reverend Billings and his wife, the thrice married and thrice widowed Mary Charlotte Ward Granniss Webster Billings (11 July 1824 – 2 March 1904), made a number of sound real estate investments on behalf of the Texas Convention, and opened All Souls Church in Hico, Texas in 1889.
Some sources state that fill the bill is American theatrical slang that dates back to 1882 where a lead performer’s name was the biggest name on the show’s poster with lesser performers listed in smaller letters and engaged to round out the program. Idiomation doesn’t doubt that this may be true, however, the idiom was used in slightly more than twenty years earlier by the Illinois State Agricultural Society, and in the context we understand it to mean today.
On page 471 of Volume 4 of the “Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society” for 1859, there was a vote on whether to go with Wilson’s Albany, Necked Pine, Early Washington, or Iowa for general cultivation. Notes were taken at this meeting and these words were attributed to Dr. Warder with regards to the best strawberry plants for farmers.
The Iowa is not a good bearer. Only on in ten of its blossom produce fruit usually. It runs too much and need thorough harrowing, which done, it bears well. It has a high flavor but requires rough treatment. It bears early, is good to have, though a little soft. Austin or Shaker’s Seedling, Dr. W. hopes well from because of its great vigor, but doubts if it fills the bill. Instead of the berries weighing at the rate of twelve to the pound, it take fifty weight a pound. Has more confidence in Downer’s Prolific. Downer is a reliable man, and the fruit and plant are both exceedingly satisfactory.
Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference however the term was used easily by Dr. Warder with the expectation that his colleagues would understand the meaning of fill the bill. We therefore peg this expression to the early 1800s.