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Re: To tell someone off

Posted by Smokey Stover on March 11, 2004

In Reply to: Re: To tell someone off posted by ESC on March 10, 2004

: : I was explaining to my French students that although "reprimand" is the correct word, "to tell someone off" is the more usual phrase but then they asked what that meant and where did it come from, and for the life of me I'd no idea, please help.

: Reprimand is more a person in authority scolding an underling. "Tell off" is more between equals.

: Tell (someone) where to get off, to express anger at, rebuke strongly, 1902. Tell off, 1919.
: Tell on, to inform on, 1900.
: From "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).

Telling someone "where to get off" is an interesting expression. I always hear the off as a preposition, not an adverb, with the rest of the prepositional phrase left to the imagination, perhaps, get off the trolley or off the bus (or off the road?). Americans, sadly, often say "where to get off at." A more explicit destination is implied in the phrase "I told him where he could go," rendered sometimes as "I told him where to go." I cannot agree with Mr. Flexner, however, that we can leap to "tell someone off" by omitting all the words between "tell someone" and "off." I believe the phrase "to tell off" has a longer history than just from 1919. It has been used, at least in the military, for a long time as (using the language of the OED) "to count off from the whole number or company; to separate or detach, esp. so many men for a particular duty. The other meaning of "to tell off," as "to scold or reprimand," also has a military history, and is probably related to the other. In both meanings, some individuals are singled out for special treatment. The OED names "tick off" as synonymous with "tell off" in the sense of "to scold." This use of "tick off" is now very old-fashioned, but congruent with the use of verbs like "tell" or "call" to single out men from the mass. True, it requires yet another leap to get to "tell someone off" in a non-military context in which you "scold them out" severely. But it is certainly not as great a leap as the one made by Mr. Flexner. SS