On the House – Idiom, Origin and Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words and phrases that create analogies that help define or explain a situation. They have a different use than their literal meaning, although many are easy to discern due to recognizable origins.

On the house is one such example. Literally, it means something is on the house, but the term “the house” has been used to describe a place of business since the 1500s, making the idiom recognizable as something “the house” is responsible for.

In this case, the house is offering services for free.

Let’s take a look at the meaning and use of on the house.

What Is the Meaning of “On the House”?

On the House Idiom Origin Meaning

The expression on the house is an idiomatic phrase meaning that a drink, meal, or other goods or service is provided at no charge.

Idioms are words and phrases with a figurative use separate from the literal meaning. For example, on the house doesn’t mean something is literally on a house. It simply means that the establishment or business is paying for the goods or service, and the charge is on the “house’s” tab.

Usually, something will be offered on the house when a customer celebrates a milestone like a birthday and is a good patron. The proprietor wants to show his appreciation, or it can also be done when something goes wrong with the goods or services provided.

For example:

  • We want to apologize for the unexpected delay this evening; your appetizers and the first round of drinks will be on the house.
  • The new state champions will have dinner here Wednesday evening, and we will offer their meals on the house.
  • We like going there on my birthday since desserts are on the house with a valid ID.

Origin of “On the House”

On the House Ngram
On the house usage trend.

The naming of a place of business as “the house” has been in use since the 16th century

Although it is likely that the term on the house has been in use longer than it’s been in print, one of the first documented uses of the phrase occurred in November of 1889 in the Kansas City Star:

  • “The first drink Thursday was ‘on the house’ in the leading saloons.”

The term (or variations of it) has continually popped up in print since, and the term is well recognized and used in all English-speaking countries.

Let’s Review

On the house means that something is offered for free or paid for by the establishment that offers it. Calling a business “the house” has been used for over 500 years, suggesting that variations of the term may be much older than its first documented use in the 1880s.

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