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  • (UK, US) enPR: tĕl, IPA(key): /tɛl/, /tɛɫ/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -ɛl

Etymology 1Edit

From Middle English tellen (to count, tell), from Old English tellan (to count, tell), from Proto-Germanic *taljaną, *talzijaną (to count, enumerate), from Proto-Germanic *talą, *talǭ (number, counting), from Proto-Indo-European *dol- (calculation, fraud). Cognate with Saterland Frisian tälle (to say; tell), West Frisian telle (to count), West Frisian fertelle (to tell, narrate), Dutch tellen (to count), Low German tellen (to count), German zählen, Faroese telja. More at tale.


tell (third-person singular simple present tells, present participle telling, simple past and past participle told)

  1. (transitive) To count, reckon, or enumerate.
    All told, there were over a dozen.  Can you tell time on a clock?  He had untold wealth.
    • 1590, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, II.vii:
      And in his lap a masse of coyne he told, / And turned vpsidowne, to feede his eye / A couetous desire with his huge threasury.
    • 1875, Hugh MacMillan, The Sunday Magazine:
      Only He who made them can tell the number of the stars, and mark the place of each in the order of the one great dominant spiral.
  2. (transitive) To narrate.
    I want to tell a story;  I want to tell you a story.
    • 1918, W. B. Maxwell, chapter 7, in The Mirror and the Lamp:
      [] Churchill, my dear fellow, we have such greedy sharks, and wolves in lamb's clothing. Oh, dear, there's so much to tell you, so many warnings to give you, but all that must be postponed for the moment.”
    • 2016, VOA Learning English (public domain)
      Tell her you’re here.
  3. (transitive) To convey by speech; to say.
    Finally, someone told him the truth.  He seems to like to tell lies.
    • 1913, Joseph C. Lincoln, chapter 4, in Mr. Pratt's Patients:
      I told him about everything I could think of; and what I couldn't think of he did. He asked about six questions during my yarn, but every question had a point to it. At the end he bowed and thanked me once more. As a thanker he was main-truck high; I never see anybody so polite.
  4. (transitive) To instruct or inform.
    Please tell me how to do it.
    • Bible, Genesis xii. 18
      Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
    • 1898, Winston Churchill, chapter 5, in The Celebrity:
      But Miss Thorn relieved the situation by laughing aloud, [] . We began to tell her about Mohair and the cotillon, and of our point of observation from the Florentine galleried porch, and she insisted she would join us there.
  5. (transitive) To order; to direct, to say to someone.
    Tell him to go away.
    • (Can we date this quote?) Charles Dickens
      He told her not to be frightened.
    • 2012 October 25, John Noble Wilford, “Neil Armstrong, First Man on the Moon, Dies at 82”, in New York Times[1]:
      Stability was restored, but once the re-entry propulsion was activated, the crew was told to prepare to come home before the end of their only day in orbit.
  6. (intransitive) To discern, notice, identify or distinguish.
    Can you tell whether those flowers are real or silk, from this distance?  No, there's no way to tell.
    • 1910, Emerson Hough, chapter I, in The Purchase Price: Or The Cause of Compromise, Indianapolis, Ind.: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, OCLC 639762314, page 0105:
      Captain Edward Carlisle, soldier as he was, martinet as he was, felt a curious sensation of helplessness seize upon him as he met her steady gaze, her alluring smile; he could not tell what this prisoner might do.
  7. (transitive) To reveal.
    Time will tell what became of him.
  8. (intransitive) To be revealed.
    • 1990, Stephen Coonts, Under Siege, 1991 Pocket Books edition, ISBN 0671742949, p.409:
      Cherry looks old, Mergenthaler told himself. His age is telling. Querulous — that's the word. He's become a whining, querulous old man absorbed with trivialities.
  9. (intransitive) To have an effect, especially a noticeable one; to be apparent, to be demonstrated.
    Sir Gerald was moving slower; his wounds were beginning to tell.
    • 1859 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
      Opinion ought [… to give] merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold [] keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour.
    • 2011 September 18, Ben Dirs, “Rugby World Cup 2011: England 41-10 Georgia”, in BBC Sport:
      But England's superior fitness told in the second half, with Delon Armitage, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton (two) going over for tries to secure a bonus-point win.
  10. (transitive) To use beads or similar objects as an aid to prayer.
  11. (intransitive, childish) To inform someone in authority about a wrongdoing.
    I saw you steal those sweets! I'm going to tell!
  12. (authorship, intransitive) To reveal information in prose through outright expository statement -- contrasted with show
    Maria rewrote the section of her novel that talked about Meg and Sage's friendship to have less telling and more showing.
Usage notesEdit
  • In dialects, other past tense forms (besides told) may be found, including tald/tauld (Scotland), tawld (Devonshire), teld (Yorkshire, Devonshire), telled (Northern England, Scotland, and in nonstandard speech generally), telt (Scotland, Geordie), tole (AAVE, Southern US, and some dialects of England), toll (AAVE), tolt (AAVE).
  • (to instruct or inform): ask
Derived termsEdit
The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout#Translations.


tell (plural tells)

  1. A reflexive, often habitual behavior, especially one occurring in a context that often features attempts at deception by persons under psychological stress (such as a poker game or police interrogation), that reveals information that the person exhibiting the behavior is attempting to withhold.
  2. (archaic) That which is told; a tale or account.
  3. (Internet) A private message to an individual in a chat room; a whisper.
See alsoEdit

Etymology 2Edit

From Arabic تَلّ(tall, hill, elevation) or Hebrew תֵּל(tél, hill), from Proto-Semitic *tall- (hill).


tell (plural tells)

  1. (archaeology) A hill or mound, originally and especially in the Middle East, over or consisting of the ruins of ancient settlements.

Norwegian BokmålEdit



  1. imperative of telle