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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).

Steady the Buffs

It was the late Lord Wobbly’s favourite colour.

Dear Word Detective: I canĀ“t find the meaning of the phrase “steady the Buffs.” It occurs in the play “An Inspector Call” by J.B. Priestley, but I’ve looked it up in many reference books and it was a waste of time. If you can find the meaning for me, I would appreciate it very much. — Mabel Susana Galinanes, Argentina.

buffs08.pngA waste of time? Oh, I beg to differ. Searching through reference books may not produce the answer to your particular question, but one almost always learns something in the process, even if it’s only the specific gravity of tuna salad or how to hypnotize a wildebeest. And you never know when you may need to know how to tie a half-over whiptailed hitch knot. Granted, that’s not very likely since I just made that up and can barely tie my own shoes. But I do know how to start a stalled car using only a credit card and a cell phone.

I have never read Mr. Priestley’s play, but from summaries I gather it is set in 1912 (although it was written in 1945) at an upper-class family dinner interrupted by the visit of a inspector (perhaps from the police; perhaps, he said ominously, not) inquiring about the death of a local working-class girl. The use of the phrase “steady the Buffs” in the play is apparently one of many not-very-subtle signals that these are indeed prosperous folk.

“Steady the Buffs” is a catchphrase meaning “stay calm, be careful, and persevere,” an expression of encouragement offered to someone in trying circumstances. The phrase itself dates back at least to the late 19th century, when it was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his short story collection “Soldiers Three.” “Steady” in the phrase is the well-known nautical command, meaning “steer steady,” i.e., maintain the current course and speed.

The “Buffs” takes a bit more explaining. It’s capitalized in the phrase because “the Buffs” is the nickname of the East Kent Regiment of the British Army, a famous unit that dates back to the 16th century. The regiment’s nickname refers to their uniform jackets in the 19th century, which sported facings (trim on the collars, cuffs, etc.) of a “buff,” or light yellowish-tan, color. “Buff” as the name of a color comes from the tanned hides of buffalo (the Asian sort, not the American bison) used as outerwear; “buff” meaning “enthusiast” comes from “fire buffs” in 19th century America, volunteer firefighters (or just wannabe firefighters) who wore such coats to conflagrations.

The exact origin and logic of the phrase “steady the Buffs” is a bit unclear, although given the illustrious history of the unit there is no lack of stories set in pitched battle against an implacable foe in which a commander encouraged his men with the phrase. After Kipling popularized it, it became a common way to say “carry on and don’t panic,” especially among the upper classes.


Wassamatta, you don’t wanna buy “Dictionary Ringtones”?

Dear Word Detective: I’ve checked your archive (I still think you should charge for access and password-protect it!) for “vamp” and “revamp”(as verbs) but found nothing (verb or noun). We’re revamping our website and I wondered if we ever really “vamped” it in the first place. Can you explain? — John R. Pearson.

revamp08.pngYou mean I should try to make money from the internet? Never! If everyone did that, next thing you know there’d be flashing ads all over the place and even junk email (can you imagine?) and all sorts of wicked people trying to scam their fellow cybernauts. No, I like the internet just the way it is: dignified, rigorously non-commercial and free. By the way, 1994 says to say hello.

I suspect that the first order of business is to explain that “revamp” has nothing to do with “vampire,” which the Oxford English Dictionary cheerfully defines as “A preternatural being of a malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a reanimated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons.” The word “vampire” comes from Slavic roots meaning “A preternatural being…” and so forth. Persons who exploit others for personal gain are also sometimes called “vampires,” and a “vamp” in movies of the 1920s and 1930s was a woman who seduced and exploited men. “To vamp” as a verb can mean to behave like a “vamp” or, in Black English in the US, “to attack or victimize.”

The “vamp” in “revamp” is of a far more pedestrian origin. A “vamp” is the portion of a shoe (or stocking) covering the front of the foot. The word dates to the 13th century in English, and is derived from the Old French “avantpie,” meaning “in front of the foot.”

For most of human history, boots and shoes have represented a substantial investment, and it was not uncommon to have the “vamp” of one’s shoes replaced periodically, giving the pair a new life. Thus “revamp,” meaning this process, first appeared in English back in the mid-19th century, and quickly took on the figurative meaning of “make new again, renovate, revise or remake” (“He had to keep on procuring magazine acceptances and then revamping the manuscripts to make them presentable,” Mark Twain, 1878).

Oddly enough, there is a figurative sense of the “shoe” kind of “vamp,” but rather than meaning “build for the first time,” it has always meant basically the same thing as “revamp” (renew, revise), so it has never been as popular as “revamp,” which has that handy “re” prefix signaling that something is being done again.