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The Scrivener: Telling Tales

Brian Barratt tells the fascinating history of the word tell.

When you go to the bank, at least in my part of the world, you are served by a teller. But what does the teller tell you? Well, apart from telling you that your account is overdrawn, the teller tells your money.

In the early 1900s, drawing-rooms in genteel American homes first echoed with tenors singing the parlour song ‘The Rosary’. That lovely old ballad, which quickly become popular outside the USA, has the line:
I tell each bead unto the end.

200 years earlier, John Keats wrote his beautiful poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. The first stanza has:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers while he told his rosary…

The clue to this use of the word ‘tell’, comes in another line of ‘The Rosary’:
I count them over ev’ry one apart

In Old English about 1,300 years ago, tellan was a verb which could mean to reckon, count, number, calculate and also to state, recount, announce, relate.

Modern translations of the Bible have ‘number the stars’ in Genesis 15:5 but a translation of this line 1,000 years ago had telle thas steorren.

Line 12165 of Layamon’s Brüt, a mythical history of Britain written about 800 years ago, has To tellen that folc of Kairliun. In modern English, this is ‘to count the people of Caerleon’.

In the 1500s, you could also 'tell noses' if you wanted to count heads. If you were idling away your time, counting the hours, you were 'telling the clock'. Have you noticed that we still teach children to tell the time by looking at watches or clocks?

Also about 500 years ago, the word ‘teller’ appeared in print for the first time with the meaning of someone who counts money. However, we can go further back for that general meaning. In a modern version of Luke 14:28, in the Bible, you’ll find the phrase ‘count the cost’. The word used in a version produced about 1,000 years ago was telleth.

200 years ago, if you told people off, you counted them out from a group for a particular task. Telling off in the sense of to scold or reprimand is a modern usage—it’s been around for less than 200 years.

I’m not telling tales when I tell you that I found much of this information in Oxford English Dictionary (the big one), which gives details of about 50 meanings or usages of this interesting word. But I'll tell you if I find a bank teller telling her rosary during working hours.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2004, 2007, 2011


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