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Word roots and routes: tell and count

© BrandX PicturesNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Tell and count, of Germanic and Latinate origin respectively, have followed similar routes in English.

The original idea behind tell is ‘to put in order’ and this has led in two main directions:

1. The predominant meaning is to narrate (e.g. tell a story) or simply say (e.g. tell the truth). The related words tale and talk also express this meaning.

2. The other basic sense is to count or add up, as in nine all told (= nine in total) or teller (literally someone who counts money).

Other phrases with tell seem to combine these two strands of meaning. For example, it can be hard to tell an original painting from a forgery i.e:
1. It’s hard to decide whether the painting should be added to, or counted as, a member of the category ‘originals’ or ‘forgeries’.
2. Therefore, if someone asks you to give your verdict – original or forgery? – it’s hard for you to say.

Similarly, if twins look very alike, it can be hard to tell them apart.

A telling example of someone’s incompetence, for instance, is a particularly significant example that clearly counts against them – or tells against them. Similarly, if something such as stress is beginning to tell on someone, it’s beginning to have a significant, noticeable effect.

Count derives from Latin computāre (= calculate) which is also, of course, the source of computer. The predominant meaning associated with count is to add up; this is the basis of the work an accountant does. A counter was originally a place where accounting was done; now it is the surface in a shop where transactions take place.

Account is used as a financial term e.g. a bank account, to settle an account – but also means a narrative or report, in which events are put in order (see tell above) e.g. an eyewitness account.

Like tell, count also has meanings related to categorisation e.g. Does geography count as a science subject? / Count yourself lucky.

Discount also has meanings related to finance and to being included in a category or being significant. If you discount something, you reduce its price (offer it at a discount) or dismiss it as impossible or insignificant, so you don’t take it into account e.g. you might discount rumours from an unreliable source.

If you recount /rɪˈkaʊnt/ events, you tell what happened, but if you recount /ˌriːˈkaʊnt/ votes, you count them again. The noun form of this second sense is /ˈriːˌkaʊnt/.

Next in this series: case and fall

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Jonathan Marks

1 Comment

  • It is also interesting that in Hebrew, the root s.p.r. is used in different grammatical forms to mean both “count” (sapar) and “tell” (siper). How can this be explained?

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