There, I discovered that the expression actually began, and is listed in most sources as, FILL THE BILL, which, as my Google search revealed, didn’t stop ~ 1.5 million clueless folks such as myself from using FIT THE BILL versus the lesser ~ 1 million who got it ‘right’ using FILL THE BILL. But get enough folks to say something wrong long enough and it magically becomes the new ‘right’ or, as in this instance, the new ‘also right.’
FILL/FIT THE BILL: Be suitable/right for a particular purpose; be just what is required; meet or exceed requirements; suffice.
All the dictionaries I checked agreed on the fact that the origin was theatrical with the BILL in question being the printed list of items on a theater program or advertisement. However, the exact details of its etymology differ, with there being two schools of thought:
School #1: Fill out the entertainment bill with enough acts to produce a show of adequate length. This usually involved a star plus some lesser-known acts or perhaps just a series of acts with no star billing.
AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF IDIOMS
FILL THE BILL: Serve a particular purpose well, as in I was afraid there wasn’t enough chicken for everyone, but this casserole will fill the bill or Karen’s testimony just fills the bill, so we’re sure to get a conviction. This expression alludes to adding less-known performers to a program (or bill) in order to make a long enough entertainment. [First half of the 1800s] [[‘Make an entertainment’ is a strange-sounding phraseology]]
OXFORD DICTIONARY OF SLANG
FIT (or FILL THE BILL): Be suitable for a particular purpose [Bill in this context is a printed list of items on a theatrical programme of advertisement]
FACTS ON FILE DICTIONARY OF CLICHÉS
TO FILL THE BILL: To satisfy the requirements, to suit a purpose. This term originally came from the nineteenth-century American stage, where the posters announcing a program would list the star attractions and then add lesser-known entertainers to complete the show (or fill out the bill). By mid-century the term had been transferred to other areas, where it acquired a more primary sense of providing what was needed.
School #2: The star’s name appears alone and in large letters and ‘fills the bill.’
FACTS ON FILE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS
FILL THE BILL: Theatrical companies in the 19th century advertised mainly on posters and handbills that were distributed in towns by advance men several weeks before a show came to town. The name of the troupe’s star performer was featured on these bills in large letters, to the exclusion of the rest of the company—he or she filled the bill, was the show’s star. Soon the vivid image behind this theatrical expression meaning “to star” came to encompass a more complex, broader thought, and by 1860 to fill the bill meant “to be very competent, effective, to do all that is desired, expected, or required.”
PICTURESQUE EXPRESSION by Urdang
FILL THE BILL: Meet or exceed requirements; achieve that which is expected of required. . . . Dating from the 1800s, this phrase had its beginnings in theatrical companies. To advertise performances, agents posted bills announcing the title and the stars. It became the goal of every star to become so celebrated that his name would fill the bill to the exclusion of the remainder of the troupe.
CASSELL’S DICTIONARY OF SLANG
FILL THE BILL verb [late 19th century] (originally U.S.: 1) To suit ideally, to satisfy. 2) To work out, to be effective. [theatrical use, ‘to excel in conspicuousness, as a star actor whose name is “billed” to the exclusion of the rest of the company (Slang and Its Analogues by Farmer & Henley – 1890-1904)
If the winning etymology is determined by majority rule, in the above dictionary vote, it’s a tie. Of course, unlike a Google count – a popularity vote – where the majority can wear down the opposition and make some things right by brute force (as FIT did here), an etymology is either right or wrong, and in this particular case it seems to me that, until further notice, the jury is out.
<1861 “Austin . .. Seedling, Dr. W. hopes well from because of its great vigor, but doubts if it fills the bill.”—Transactions of the Illinois Agricultural Society 1860, IV, page 471>
<1880 “With this requirement in view does Colorado ‘fill the Bill’?”—New Colorado (1881) by A. A. Hayes, ii. page 23>
<1882 “‘Affable Imbecile’ would about fill the bill for you.”—Chicago Tribune>
<1890 “‘I am a graduate of the Medical college of ——, and I think I can fit the bill. Is [[sic]] there any vacancies now? Is the examination as rigid as reported? I am a lover of surgery and hope I will fit the bill.”—The Kansas City Medical Record, Vol. VII. No. 11, page 426>
<1890 “They filled the bill according to their lights.”—Harper’s Magazine, February, page 441>
<1904 “I don't think I ever saw a word used that . . . filled the bill quite so completely as this word ‘experimentally’ will do for us.”— by W. H. Smith, i. page 20>
<1925 “. . .last night, Senator James J. Walker, Democratic nominee for Mayor, declared that if a business man was wanted to fill that office he would fit the bill, . . .”—New York Times, 14 October>
<1933 “All other recorded paintings which else might fit the bill were bought by English patrons . . . “—The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 62, No. 363, June, page 286>
<1954 “He felt that he owed it to himself to have a mistress he could love, and whose position would add to his prestige. He decided that Alexandrine Daru, Pierre's wife, would fill the bill.”—Ten Novels by W. Somerset Maugham, iv. page 75>
<1986 “If you..want your introduction to computers to be absolutely painless, nay, even fun . . . then the Mac . . .will probably fit the bill.”—Electronic Musician, May, page 43/3>>
<1991 “Meat look-alikes, also called fake meats or meat analogs really fit the bill.”—Vegetarian Times, January, page 12/1>
<2000 “In a world short on heroes, these two splendid athletes and ever-so-decent human beings fill the bill quite nicely.”—Boston Herald,24 July>
<2004 “I can easily find a nice handful of recipes, from the simple to the complex, to fit the bill.”—New York Times, 29 September>
<2008 “Obama's Clinton-era picks tend to fit the bill.”—Chicago Tribune, 21 November>
<2009 “But over the long term, commission members say, the nation should consider taxing mileage rather than gasoline as drivers use more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles. As cars burn less fuel, ‘the gas tax isn't going to fill the bill,’ said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.”—Associated Press, 2 January>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)
Ken G – January 5, 2009