On the radar: receipts
“Comey has the receipts!”
This phrase has been gleefully proclaimed across social media, in response to the news that the former FBI Director James Comey has a memo proving that President Trump asked him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn. But how and when did ‘receipts’ come to mean ‘proof’?
The word ‘receipt’ dates from Middle English, referring to an amount of something received or the act of receiving something. By the late 16th century it had also come to mean a written or printed statement acknowledging that something has been paid for – the familiar paper receipts that fill our wallets when we’ve been shopping. But what is the connection to ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ that is being referred to with Comey?
The answer lies in a 2002 interview with Whitney Houston. The journalist Diane Sawyer challenged the singer about her drug use, showing Houston a newspaper article and stating “This says $730,000 drug habit. This is a headline.” In response, Houston said: “No way. No way. I want to see the receipts. From the drug dealer that I bought $730,000 worth of drugs from. I want to see the receipts.”
This exchange quickly became legendary, with the phrase “I want to see the receipts” adopted into popular use to mean “I want to see the proof”. The phrase was further popularized with the emergence of ‘receipt’ memes, many of which used images from the original Houston interview, and in time different phrases emerged with the catchy “show me the receipts” proving the most popular.
Initially, the term was used when the speaker was fairly confident that there was no solid evidence: they asked to see receipts precisely because – like Whitney Houston – they knew no such proof existed. Nowadays, ‘receipts’ are just as likely to be noted for their presence as their absence, particularly when evidence has emerged to prove that someone famous or powerful has lied or acted dishonestly. On websites such as tumblr ‘receipts’ came to refer to screenshots of abusive or offensive comments – grabbed and preserved before the perpetrators can delete their unwise words.
With the Comey incident, ‘receipts’ has taken its step into the mainstream, with the term escaping the confines of social media, and finding its place in articles by the likes of GQ and the New York Magazine. Will it establish itself enough to earn a place in the dictionary? We’ll have to wait and see – but at least we’ve got the receipts to prove its history.