sell a bill of goods

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sell a bill of goods

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Jul 05, 2014 4:43 am

<2014 “Cut the guy a break . . . . Bergdahl is hardly the only American to have joined the military for the supposed glamour of war and the chance to spread freedom to grateful foreigners, only to find out he’d been sold a bill of goods.”—The Week, 20 June, page 16>

From its wording, the meaning of this expression doesn’t jump out you – a characteristic of idioms – and although I think many have come across it many times, a clear definition might be helpful.

The expression has two meanings. One is a benign business definition and the other, through ironic usage, has been twisted into a phrase expressing dishonesty.


BILL OF GOODS noun (originally and chiefly U.S.).

1) [early 20th century]: A quantity or consignment of salable items, as an order, shipment, etc. [[the honest meaning]]

[[On consignment:With the provision that payment is expected only on completed sales and that unsold items may be returned to the one consigning. <The retailer accepted the shipment on consignment.> (American Heritage Dictionary)]]

2) TO SELL (SOMEONE) A BILL OF GOODS [1927]: To persuade (someone) to accept something undesirable; to swindle. [[the dishonest meaning]]


SELL SOMEONE A BILL OF GOODS, TO: To cheat or defraud someone. A “bill of goods,” in commercial language is a quantity or consignment of merchandise. Selling it here means persuading someone to accept something undesirable. The term dates from the early twentieth century.


SELL A BILL OF GOODS: Deceive, swindle, take unfair advantage of, as in <He was just selling you a bill of goods when he said he worked as a secret agent . . .>. The bill of goods here means ‘a dishonest offer.’ [circa [1920]]

And from across the sea:


BILL (OF GOODS) noun (also BILL [20th century and still in use] (originally U.S.): False promises, a hoax, theories that are not followed up by practice; thus sell one a bill of goods, to persuade (someone) to accept something undesirable, to swindle someone [Standard English bill of goods a consignment of merchandise.]

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1927 “Selling a big bill of goods hereabouts, I'll wager, you old rascals?”—Marco Millions by Eugene O’Neill, I, 41>

<1945 “Don't let Jim sell you a bill of goods.”—Larry Scott by E. Ford, xii. page 120>

<1968 “There was no production bonus . . . We were sold a bill of goods.”—Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 17 February, page 8/3>

<1992 “In Boston, Bush's local supporters joined in criticizing the Democratic nominee and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who are on a postconvention campaign bus tour.‘They are leading a caravan trying to sell a bill of goods to the American people,’ said Gov. Weld, chairman of the Bush-Quayle reelection campaign in Massachusetts.”— Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 21 July>

<2002 “Sallee said the district plans to use its mobile medical clinic to spread the word about the study. Trustees would accompany the clinic and hold town meetings in shopping center parking lots.
‘Basically, we are going to get input from the people,’ Sallee said. ‘We are not trying to sell a bill of goods.’”— Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, 12 March>

<2010 “I noted that the Obama administration and Nancy Pelosi had ‘spent more money in less time than any administration in history, [they] have driven the deficits to unprecedented levels, and [they're] trying to sell a bill of goods to the country claiming that [they're] going to create the mother of all entitlements, insure 30 million more Americans, and we're going to save you money ... Nobody believes that.’”—States News Service, 11 March>

<2012 “It appears that the contractors have once again managed to sell a bill of goods to the politicians and bureaucrats who oversee the procurement of technology designed to secure our borders.”— Time Magazine, 29 February>

<2014 “. . . many analysts say what Iraq really needs is a Nelson Mandela who can bring embittered, violent political enemies together. Is Ahmad Chalabi, the man who sold the U.S. a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's Nelson Mandela? Many have grave doubts.”— International Wire, 1July>

Ken G – July 4, 2014

Re: sell a bill of goods

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Jul 05, 2014 4:58 am

When I moved to the US a few years ago I puzzled over this expression, which I had not heard in Britain, so it was useful to read more about it in your posting.

It reminds me of that derisive rejoinder which I have only heard here: "If you believe that, I've got a bridge
to sell you", or words to that effect.

When I mentioned this posting to my wife just now, she said that though she hadn't heard the bridge saying, she was familiar with another one that expresses a similar idea: "If you believe that, I've got some swampland in Florida to sell you".

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