All told

For whom the clinker clanks.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve pondered the question and I’ve done a little research on the internet only to find conflicting opinions on the subject. So I write to you, the master, to give me an answer to the question. Is it “all told” or “all tolled”? Even newspapers frustrate me on this one (not that they don’t frustrate me with their news as well). — L. Fiske.

Master, eh? So how come I can’t get my own dogs to do simple things, such as mowing the lawn? All they’re willing to do is wash dishes, and the plates smell funny afterward.

alltold308.pngBut since we seem to be in the mood for a pronouncement, here it is: the standard idiom is “all told,” not “all tolled,” and has been since it first appeared in the mid-19th century. What you have stumbled upon is a classic “eggcorn,” the substitution of a word or words that sound similar (or in this case exactly the same, “tolled” and “told” being homophones) to the “correct” words. The term “eggcorn” was coined in 2003 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in regard to someone online using “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” The key feature of an “eggcorn” is that the substitution makes a certain weird sense, as in the case of “eggcorn” itself. An acorn is indeed rather egg-shaped, and is a seed, as is corn, so if one has heard “acorn,” but never seen the word in print, writing it as “eggcorn” is not entirely crazy. The substitution of “for all intensive purposes” for “intents and purposes” is another semi-logical classic eggcorn.

“All tolled” is not only an eggcorn for “all told,” it’s apparently one that some people (according to the excellent Eggcorn Database) are willing to defend as the “correct” form. Their argument is that “tolled” means “added up,” which it does not and never has. “To toll” (of which “tolled” is the past tense) means “to ring a bell,” or (rarely) “to demand a tax or charge” (as at a toll booth). The noun “toll” means “tax, charge or levy.” The use of “toll” in “death toll” and similar phrases as a metaphorical equivalent of “price” does not mean that “to toll” means “to sum up.”

“All told,” on the other hand, does sound a bit odd. At first glance, “all told” seems to imply that whatever is being summed up is a sort of story being narrated or “told,” and when the story-telling is finished one says “all told,” a weirdly abrupt equivalent of “game over.”

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).

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