What in the Word?! A tall tale
Tall. It’s a simple enough word, isn’t it? ‘High of stature’, ‘above average height’. ‘Not short’. Well, if we look to the history of this little word, we’ll find that that latter definition certainly applies.
The long and short of tall
Like handsome, which kicked off this series, tall is a word that really grew up with the English language over the centuries. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: the sense development of tall is ‘remarkable’. If the OED, ever staid when it comes to its etymologies, calls it ‘remarkable’, you know something’s up.
Sticking with the OED, the dictionary finds the earliest evidence for tall in Middle English. Back then, the adjective denoted a variety of attributes – none of them dealing with height. The first, in Chaucer’s ~1374 Complaint of Mars, is a bit vague. Chaucer describes the eponymous Mars as ‘humble & talle’, which scholars have variously taken as ‘quick’ and ‘prompt’ but also ‘meek’, and ‘docile’. The 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum – a Latin-English school dictionary that also provides the earliest evidence for handsome, as we saw two weeks ago – defines tall as ‘semely’, or seemly. The Promptorium then glosses tall with the Latin decens and elegans. Both decens, source of decent, and elegans, elegant, originally signified, roughly, ‘becoming’ or ‘befitting’.
Elegant, then as now, connoted ‘refinement’, which we also see in uses of the word tall around the same time as the Promptorium. During about 1450-1650, the OED finds tall as ‘fair’ and ‘fine’, often said of young, handsome men. Yes, in their meandering pasts, tall and handsome once met along the way – although we won’t see tall, dark, and handsome until Robert Knowles 1906 novel, Undertow: ‘Oh yes, you could tell he was good to look at him—he was tall—and dark—and handsome…’ The speaker then adds: ‘Oh tell me…do you think I shouldn’t? He’s a minister you, know’. Not exactly the type we associate with tall, dark, and handsome.
The early 1500s give us yet another dimension of tall: ‘brave’, ‘valiant’, or as the OED more literally has it, ‘good at arms’. The latter’s sense of skill, and calling back to the word’s older uses for ‘ready’ and ‘active’, may have yielded the expression a tall man of his hands (‘dextrous’) and a tall man of his tongue (‘forceful in argument’).
Then, in 1530, we finally see the modern sense of tall, ‘above average height’, shoot up. Again, the earliest evidence comes in a reference book: John Palsgrave’s Henry VIII-dedicated L’esclarcissement de la langue francoyse, a grammar of the French language. Palsgrave defines the Old French hault (haut) as ‘talle or hye’, that is, ‘tall or high’.
But how did tall, given all its previous and seemingly unrelated past lives, get here? Some etymologists have proposed that this tall is an altogether different word, borrowed from a Celtic source like the Welsh tal, meaning the same. This word, though, may actually have been borrowed from the English.
Others, citing words like handsome that have dramatically evolved in English, have tried to thread tall’s shifting senses. Tall, as ‘quick’ or ‘prompt’, suggests strength and skill, leading to tall as ‘brave’ or ‘valiant’; this was later associated with great physical stature, and so we get the tall as we know it today. And tall as ‘fitting’ or ‘proper’ became ‘handsome’, also associated with men of great – and apparently attractive – physical stature before tall was generalized to height in general.
Tall’s exact pathway is tricky, and so too are its deeper roots. Most etymologists point to an Old English getæl, pronounced something like yeh-tal and meaning something like ‘swift’. (The ge– prefix, as the thinking goes, fell away, which we’ve seen in other English words.) They cite some possible Germanic cousins like the Old High German gizal (‘quick’), the Old Northumbrian untal (‘evil’), and the Gothic untals , whose sense of ‘disobedient’ suggests Chaucer’s tall, and thus English’s first tall, may have originally meant ‘docile’ after all. (We might imagine how tall as ‘docile’, or quick to learn or submit, leads to tall as ‘prompt’ and ‘ready’.)
Word historians are a determined group, though, searching for ever deeper origins. A number of etymologists have connected, incredibly, the tæl in getæl to tale, talk, and tell. They hypothesize from an ancient Indo-European root meaning ‘count’ or ‘recount’ – think tell time, though this etymology requires yet more semantic somersaults for tall.
Born as a metaphorical outgrowth, tall kept extending in English. Over the 1500-1600s, tall expanded to ‘lofty’, e.g., tall, or ‘high-flown’, words. In the mid-1800s, tall reached ‘exaggerated’, hence tall tales, and ‘large in amount’, as in a tall order. And to walk tall began as walking with one’s chin up and head held high, a show of dignity and confidence. Tall, as we see in a phrase like walk tall, also as became both its own adjective and adverb form – though tally, i.e., tall-ly, once enjoyed some use as ‘bravely’ by the late 14th century and ‘loftily’ by the 17th.
Now, over half a millennium since we first find it in the record, tall is a size of a take-away coffee, thanks to Starbucks. The coffee giant first served up short (8oz.) and tall (12oz.) beverages before tall appetites had them further upping their cups. Have a tall, or long, drink of that.