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Q From Ellen Schur: I work in curriculum development at The Open University, Israel. We were writing an article the other day which contained the term ATMs (automatic teller machines). The question we all asked was, how or when did this sense of the word teller come down to us?

A It’s almost as ancient as the verb to tell. It comes from a Germanic source that mainly meant to relate something, but it also had the sense of counting or reckoning (the modern German verb zählen, to count, comes from the same root, as do words in other Germanic languages). It suggests that the original sense may have been something like “put in order”.

The sense of counting attached to the verb is recorded from about the year 1000 and remained in the language until the nineteenth century at least. The rustic poet John Clare had a line in his poem The Village Minstrel of 1821: “The shepherd had told all his sheep”, meaning not that he had announced some item of news to his flock, but that he had counted them. (Don’t confuse this with “They went and told the sexton, and / The sexton tolled the bell”, from Faithless Sally Brown by that arch-punner Thomas Hood.) We still have a strong echo of that when we use tell to mean decide or determine something correctly or with certainty: “you can tell they’re in love”; “I can’t tell who has won”.

The sense of teller for a person who counts money dates from 1480 at the latest. At the time in Britain there were officials called tellers, in particular four officers of the Exchequer who were responsible for the receipt and payment of money.

The same word also turns up a little later in reference to a person who counts the votes at an election. Those who do that job in various places to this day are still called tellers. In 1669 the poet Andrew Marvell wrote in a letter that “The tellers for the ayes chanced to be very ill reckoners, so that they were forced to tell severall times over”.

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Page created 06 Jan 2001