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Death toll

Q From Nithin Belle: I’ve been taught in journalism school — way back in the 1980s — that death is redundant when you use toll to describe the number of casualties. Yet, time and again, even prestigious magazines like the Economist and Time, refer to death toll. Your comments please.

A There’s most definitely no problem finding examples in print. I put the search term into a newspaper database covering the past decade and nearly blew its fuses: 63,000 examples came back. But there’s no reference to it in any of the style guides that are readily to hand or mouse. I’d argue that it’s much too late to complain about the usage and that the reason for the objection isn’t valid in any case.

The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from 1981, which might suggest that it’s modern. But a search in another newspaper database turned up lots of examples from the end of the nineteenth century in American newspapers. The oldest I can find is dated 1897 and is in a report sent via London: “Special despatches from Bombay say that from 600 to 1,000 rioters were killed during the recent rioting in the vicinity of Calcutta and it is added that native circles put the death toll as high as 1,500.” By 1910 it had become common and has remained so ever since.

The two words were put together because the word toll then didn’t necessarily mean death, but any loss or injury or cost in health (I’d argue it still does: it’s in modern dictionaries). It was a development of its original sense of a tax, charge or imposed cost and seems to have appeared in American English in the 1870s, often in the phrase to take its toll that we still use. The OED quotes Blackwood’s Magazine in 1909 as an example of the broader meaning: “Nott’s gallant division ... paid its toll of killed and wounded.” Death toll was created to clarify the sense.

Incidentally, though the tolling of bells is often associated with death (remember John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”), the verb comes from another source, probably a special use of the dialect toll, meaning to drag or pull, which was transferred from the pulling of the bell rope to the sound of the bell.

These days it has to be classed as a fixed phrase that’s virtually an idiom, but one that’s still useful to make clear what’s meant.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Jan. 2004

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Last modified: 8 January 2004.