Clever commenter James M. on my What does “Telling Knots” mean? page wondered if the expression “all told” comes from the old meaning of telling as “counting”. I went over to one of my favorite word sites, The Word Detective, and found a post from April, 2008 about this very phrase. Yay, Word Detective!
That post is mostly in answer to the question of whether it should be spelled “all tolled” or “all told“. But among other things (well worth reading), the Word Detective says:
But “tell” (of which “told” is the past tense) didn’t originally mean “to narrate.” Rooted in the Old English “tellen,” it meant “to count” or “to keep track of,” a sense we still use when we “tell time” and which underlies the word “teller,” a person who keeps track of money in a bank. “All told” embodies this archaic sense of “tell” in the past tense to mean “all counted and added up, in summation.” So “all told” can be properly used in a numerical sense (“All told, twelve football players were arrested”) as well as a more figurative sense of “the end result” (“All told, it was a pretty successful day”). Interestingly, the evolution of “to tell” from meaning “to count” to meaning “to narrate a story” is paralleled by another common word, “recount” (as well as “account” for the story itself).
So that was a good intuition, James. Thank you.
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As long as I’m talking about favorite word sites, I have to mention WordReference.com.(*) Not just a dictionary site, not just a collection of forums, WordReference.com is “Two! Two! Two treats in one!” (Youngsters, never mind the old folks giggling in the back of the room.) A well-moderated, focused site, WR offers monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, and forums for translation, grammar and discussions in and about most languages on the planet. It’s a great place for students, teachers and word lovers of all sorts. Come over and take a look.
* Full Disclosure: I am a volunteer moderator on the site. But that’s because I love it so much.