A rat by any other name smells about the same.
Dear Word Detective: The other day my daughter dropped a dime on me and told a story out of school. It was actually pretty funny and I told her friends that she was a tattletale and, unfortunately, proud of it. Fear not, I do not have three questions, I only have one. Where in the world did a silly sounding term like “tattletale” come from? — Bob.
One question? So you say. But once you mentioned the other two phrases, the genie was out of the bottle. Were I to restrict my attention to “tattletale,” the mob of angry readers would be sharpening their pitchforks before nightfall. I joke, of course, but only a little. I remember several occasions in my childhood when our family’s Sunday dinner was interrupted by phone calls to my father (who wrote this column for nearly 40 years) from his readers. He always took the calls, too, which, in retrospect, strikes me as remarkably tolerant. That was, of course, before the days of caller ID, which I rank as a great invention right up there with penicillin and microwave pancakes.
I also remember “tattletale” being one of the worst accusations that could be flung in my crowd when I was a child, but that was in the days before celebrity gossip became our national pastime. Most people, of course, still regard betraying the confidences of friends — “dropping a dime” on them — as a bad thing, and that is exactly what a “tattletale” does. The term “tattletale,” which first appeared in print in 1889, is actually drawn from “tell-tale,” an older (around 1548) and less mysterious term defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “one who idly or maliciously discloses private or secret matters.” A “tale” in this sense is a story or narrative, of course, but in “tell-tale” and “tattletale” it bears the specialized meaning of “things told so as to violate confidence or secrecy; reports of private matters not proper to be divulged” (OED).
The “tattle” in “tattletale” comes from the verb “to tattle,” which originally, in the 15th century, meant to stammer or speak in baby-talk, but later came to mean “to gossip” and “to freely reveal secrets and private affairs.” The roots of “tattle” are in Flemish, where it appears to have arisen as an imitation of the sound of a child yammering.
“Drop a dime on,” meaning “to inform on or to betray” someone, first appeared in street slang in the mid-1960s, when public telephones (into which one literally dropped a dime to make a call) were the best way to anonymously reach the police.
“To tell tales out of school” dates back to the 16th century, and originally literally referred to children betraying secrets confided by other students at school. Today it’s usually used in situations where a member or former member of a closed organization reveals the “inside story” by violating established norms of confidentiality. Soon after nearly every US president leaves office, for example, the front tables at Barnes & Noble are stacked with “tales told out of school” about what really went on in the White House.