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See also: tell-tale


Alternative forms[edit]


From tell +‎ tale, perhaps dissimilated from earlier taleteller, from Middle English tale tellere (literally tale teller).


  • IPA(key): /ˈtɛlteɪl/
  • (file)


telltale (plural telltales)

  1. One who divulges private information with intent to hurt others.
    Synonyms: blabbermouth, gossip, rumormonger, squealer, talebearer, tattletale; see also Thesaurus:gossiper
    • c. 1596–1598 (date written), William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, →OCLC, [Act V, scene i], page 183:
      Your husband is at hand; I heare his Trumpet, / We are not tell-tales, Madam; feare you not.
    • 1846, Herman Melville, Typee:
      There were some ill-natured people —tell-tales—it seemed, in Tamai; and hence there was a deal of mystery about getting up the dance.
    • 1904, Jack London, The Sea-Wolf (Macmillan’s Standard Library), New York, N.Y.: Grosset & Dunlap, →OCLC:
      Louis tells me that the gossip of the sailors finds its way aft, and that two of the telltales have been badly beaten by their mates.
    • 2008, Fleur Yano, Collected Writings of Flora Belle Jan, page 112:
      The Chinese girls who saw me yesterday are telltales. I'd better wait till dark.
    • 2011, Elizabeth Grahamslaw, A Parents' Guide To Primary School:
      Try to teach your child that there's a time to intervene and a time to mind your own business. Nobody loves a telltale.
  2. An indicator, such as a warning light, that serves to warn of a hazard or problem.
    • 1893, “Case No. 2: Phillips vs. The Railroad Co.”, in The Counsellor: The New York Law School Law Journal, page 63:
      A railroad company, which has properly erected a “telltale,” or signal board, to give warning of the approach of a train to a bridge and which lights the place at night by an electric light, is not responsible for injury caused at night by the “telltale” to a brakeman who had been passing under it at regular intervals for five weeks, though when injured he was standing upon a new car higher than those before used, and though he ad received no warning from the company as to the danger of standing upon such a car while passing under the "telltale".
    • 1901, National Fire Protection Association, Proceedings - Volume 5, page 127:
      A float telltale to be provided which shall connect with indicator on first floor by a small chain run through 1-2 inch pipe and over pulleys well guarded against the weather.
    • 1960 November, David Morgan, “"Piggyback"—U.S. success story”, in Trains Illustrated, page 684:
      For example, when trailers containing new automobiles were first piggybacked two areas of potential damage became evident: (1) diesel locomotive exhaust left a film of oil on the new autos; and (2) auto windshields could be scarred or cracked by the metal-tipped "tell-tales" which warn men atop trains of oncoming bridges or tunnels. Accordingly, automobiles aboard piggyback flats are usually coupled into the train 15 or more cars behind the locomotive; and telltales have been raised.
    • 1980, The Code of Federal Regulations of the United States of America, page 150:
      Except for informational readout displays, each discrete and distinct telltale shall be of the color shown in column 2 of Table 2.
    • 1994, United States. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations, page 26:
      In order to resolve the discrepancy and permit the use of telltales in informational readout displays, the agency proposed the following requirement: Telltales and gauges incorporated into informational readout displays ( a ) Shall have not less than two levels of light intensity, a higher one for day and a lower one for nighttime conditions. (b) In the case of telltales amd gauges not equipped with a variable light intensity control shall have a light intensity at the higher level []
  3. (figuratively) Something that serves to reveal something else.
    The telltale was the lipstick on his shirt collar.
    • 1898, George Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature:
      It supplies many useful links and tell-tales.
    • 2000, Dany Page, Jorge G. Hirsch, From the Sun to the Great Attractor, page 49:
      In most cases the event is shielded by a large mass and only telltales arrive on earth. Such telltales include neutrinos, or even some form of radiation.
    • 2003, Eric Martin, Arun Sharma, Frank Stephan, “On Ordinal VC-Dimension and Some Notions of Complexity”, in Ricard Gavalda, Klaus P. Jantke, Eiji Takimoto, editors, Algorithmic Learning Theory, page 54:
      It can be claimed that VC-dimension is to PAC-learning what finite telltales are to Inductive inference.
    • 2013, Harold Gatty, Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass:
      Just as small pieces of rock produce telltale directional noon holes, so do large pieces of rock on snow produce telltales: but these telltales are of rather a different kind.
  4. (music) A movable piece of ivory, lead, or other material, connected to the bellows of an organ, whose position indicates when the wind is exhausted.
  5. (nautical) A length of yarn or ribbon attached to a sail or shroud etc to indicate the direction of the flow of the air relative to the boat.
    • 1997, Patrick M. Royce, Royce's Sailing Illustrated - Volume 2:
      The sailmakers mistake can be an excellent way to lose a race as the telltale signals were disturbed and confusing.
    • 2011, J. J. Isler, Peter Isler, Sailing For Dummies, page 245:
      If you turn toward the wind, the sail becomes undertrimmed, and the inside, or windward, telltale starts to rise and flutter as the flow is disturbed.
    • 2014, John Rousmaniere, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, page 76:
      The telltale shows if wind is flowing across the sail on every point of sail except a run.
  6. (nautical) A mechanical attachment to the steering wheel, which, in the absence of a tiller, shows the position of the helm.
  7. (nautical) A compass in the cabin of a vessel, usually placed where the captain can see it at all hours, and thus inform himself of the vessel's course.
  8. (engineering) A machine or contrivance for indicating or recording something, particularly for keeping a check upon employees (factory hands, watchmen, drivers, etc.) by revealing to their employers what they have done or omitted.
  9. A bird, the tattler.
  10. A story or fable that has a moral or message.
    • 2012, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, The Origins of Life, page 130:
      "Metamorphoses . . ." is the title of a book of telltales (or serialised fables) written by Lucius Apulei¡us, a neo-platonist priest in the second century A.D.
    • 2018, Dawood Kaloti, The Telltale Leaflet: From Palestine to Stockholm:
      This telltale is not like the story that you put in the hands of your children, or those narrated by mothers in their children's bedrooms in Western Europe before sleep. This is a telltale that is not welcome but is forbidden to be distributed.

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telltale (comparative more telltale, superlative most telltale)

  1. Revealing something, especially something not intended to be known.
    I noticed the snow was dirty, a telltale sign of recent human presence.
    He blushed when he approached, a telltale sign that he was happy to see him.

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