Word Confusion: Tail versus Tale

Posted September 4, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 11 October 2017

I’m not sure how writers who have supposedly read a few tales in their lives could possibly confuse tail with tale. I know a few tails might be swishing and flicking if that tale gets really interesting. And I know my tail gets to twitching when I run across a word confusion, ahem, *grin*.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Tail Tale
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

“Jungle Book” by Alias 0591 from the Netherlands (Jungle book uploaded by russavia) is under the CC-BY-2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Shake that tail!

“Serial Tales” by Chapman & Hall of Christies Auction House is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It seemed such an appropriate “tale”.

Part of Grammar:
Noun 1, 2;
Verb 3, intransitive & transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: tails
Past tense or past participle: tailing
Gerund or present participle: tailed

Plural: tales
Hindmost part of an animal, especially when prolonged beyond the rest of the body, such as the flexible extension of the backbone in a vertebrate, the feathers at the hind end of a bird, or a terminal appendage in an insect 1

  • Thing resembling an animal’s tail in its shape or position, typically something extending downward or outward at the end of something
  • Rear part of an airplane, with the horizontal stabilizer and rudder
  • Lower or hanging part of a garment, especially the back of a shirt or coat
  • [Informal; tails] A tailcoat; a man’s formal evening suit with such a coat
  • Luminous trail of particles following a comet
  • Lower end of a pool or stream
  • Exposed end of a slate or tile in a roof

End of a long train or line of people or vehicles

  • [Singular] Final, more distant, or weaker part of something
  • [Informal] A person secretly following another to observe their movements

[Informal] A person’s buttocks

[Vulgar slang] A woman’s genitals

  • [Informal; chiefly offensive] Women collectively regarded as a means of sexual gratification

[Tails] Reverse side of a coin (used when tossing a coin)

[Law, chiefly historical] Limitation of ownership, especially of an estate or title limited to a person and their heirs 2

Verb, intransitive:

[Of an object in flight] Drift or curve in a particular direction

Verb, transitive:
[Informal] Follow and observe someone closely, especially in secret

[Rare] Provide with a tail

[Archaic] Join one thing to another

Fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted

  • A lie

[Archaic] A number or total

the trailed tail of a capital Q 1

The cars were head to tail.

The men looked debonair in white tie and tails.

an armored truck at the tail of the convoy

The forecast says we’re in for the tail of a hurricane.

Fireworks followed when the coach kicked Ryan in his tail.

My wife thinks going out with you guys will keep me from chasing tail.

The land was held in tail general. 2

Verb, intransitive:
They went to their favorite cafe—Bill and Sally tailed along.

The next pitch tailed in on me at the last second.

Verb, transitive:
A flock of paparazzi had tailed them all over Paris.

Her calligraphy was topped by banners of black ink and tailed like the haunches of fabulous beasts.

Each new row of houses tailed on its drains to those of its neighbors.

You lived to tell the tale.

Storytellers tell tales.

Paul Bunyan is a tall tale.

We’ll need an exact tale of the dead bodies.
That’s an old wive’s tale.

Ma, Henry’s telling tales again.

…and thereby hangs a tale.

Adjective: tailless, taillike
Adverb: taillessly
Noun: tailer, taillessness
History of the Word:
1 Old English tæ(e)l is from a Germanic base meaning hair, hairy tail.

Related to Middle Low German tagel meaning twisted whip, rope’s end.

2 Middle English denoting a tallage.

From the Old French taille meaning notch, tax, and from taillier meaning to cut.

Based on Latin talea meaning twig, cutting.

3 The early sense of the verb (early 16th century) was fasten to the back of something.

Old English talu meaning telling, something told.

Of Germanic origin

Related to Dutch taal meaning speech and the German Zahl meaning number, also to tell

[Archaic] Probably from Old Norse

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits

Canadian Lynx Near Whitehorse, Yukon by kdee64 (Keith Williams) (Flickr) is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.