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The Scrivener: Telling It Like It Is

...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...

Wordsman supreme Brian Barratt tells us about telling.

On 27 January 1660 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:
'Here I staid talking with him till the offices were all shut, and then I looked in the Hall, and was told by my bookseller, Mrs. Michell, that Mr. G. Montagu had inquired there for me.'

On 24 January 1660 he wrote:
'In the morning to my office, where, after I had drank my morning draft at Will’s with Ethell and Mr. Stevens, I went and told part of the excise money till twelve o’clock, and then called on my wife and took her to Mr. Pierces, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens, and I vexed to go so slow, it being late.'

Mr Pepys told part of the excise money. In the 21st century, when you go to the bank you are served by a teller. If she doesn't tell you that your account is overdrawn, the teller tells your money. At least, that was the case before we started doing our banking business on line, on our home computers, without human intervention.

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', tell the stars.

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 '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 but the kids don't ask 'What do I tell the clock', do they?
Also about 500 years ago, the noun ‘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.

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' and 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'

There is so much to discover in the diaries of Samuel Pepys. He quietly reveals that 'staid' is one of the old spellings of 'stayed'. He pointedly tells us that poor Mrs Pepys was uncomfortable in her pattens, her shoes with wooden soles. There are, or have been, about 50 different uses and meanings of tell and told, and we can be grateful to the indefatigable Mr Pepys for alerting us to just two of them.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012.


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