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Telltale - Repost

Posted by TheFallen on February 14, 2003

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Each day in our seventh grade class we choose two words or phrases for general discussion before tackling the day's assigned work.This site has been an immense help for the students and we thank you.
One of today's words is "telltale." What is its origin?

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Telltale is an interesting word in that it's formed of two halves that stem from the same origin, if you go far enough back. However, if you go not quite so far back, "tell" comes from the Old English word "tellan" meaning both to count and to recount. "Tell" in modern English retains both these senses - counting (as in "telling one's blessings", or the phrase "all told") but far more commonly recounting or narrating (as in "telling a story").

"Tale" comes again from the Old English word "talu", meaning a thing that is told, a story or a tale. It's the noun from the verb, if you like.

Put the two together and you get "telltale", which in its simplest form should mean someone or something that imparts information - and it does mean this, except that the information conveyed is usually bad news. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "tale" as follows:-

1. A recital of events or happenings; a report or revelation: told us a long tale of woe.
2. A malicious story, piece of gossip, or petty complaint.
3. A deliberate lie; a falsehood.
4. A narrative of real or imaginary events; a story. 5. Archaic A tally or reckoning; a total.

Looking at senses 1 and 2 combined, it's no surprise that "telltale" should have this bad news ring to it. Today, "telltale" has two main usages. It's used to refer to someone who delights in telling others about your wrongdoings to get you into trouble - also known as a "tattletale". It's also used to describe a sign or a piece of evidence that points towards something else, again usually (but not always) of a bad or unpleasant nature - "My car's engine seized up today because it ran out of oil. I should have known when I saw that blue smoke pouring out of the talepipe on Saturday - that's always a telltale sign."

I've just discovered that "telltale" is also the name for the lowest part of the front wall of a squash court, above which one must hit the ball. Squash is a very fast-moving game, and so this prohibited area is always faced with tin. This makes any ball striking it give off a very different noise, so that players may instantly know that a foul shot has been made. Bad news again - and a nice name for it, I thought.