Q From Douglas Maurer, Washington, DC: What is the origin of the phrase tall tale (meaning a humorous lie)? What is tall about it?
A Tall is one of those curious words, like nice, that has had more meanings down the centuries than you can shake a stick at. Back in Anglo-Saxon times it meant swift or prompt, and later on it variously had senses of fine, handsome, bold, strong, brave, skilful and a good fighter. It was only in the sixteenth century that it started to mean somebody or something physically higher than normal. (Even now, we can speak of somebody being five feet tall, in which tall means having a specified height, not being of more than average height.)
Sometime in the seventeenth century, tall started to mean something grandiloquent or high-flown, an obvious enough extension from the — by then — usual meaning. A little later, certainly by the 1840s, Americans had started to use it for something exaggerated or highly coloured, as in phrases like tall stories or tall writing. It’s closely connected with tall order, something that is thought to be hard to achieve, and there were other phrases as well, such as tall time, meaning a long time, which Charles Dickens used.
“Tall tale” obviously belongs in among these. I haven’t been able to track down its earliest recorded use (for some reason, the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing earlier than 1933) but I did find this, from a lesser-known work by Jerome K Jerome of 1893 called Novel Notes: “I’ve come across monkeys as could give points to one or two lubbers I’ve sailed under; and elephants is pretty spry, if you can believe all that’s told of ’em. I’ve heard some tall tales about elephants”. I’ve also found this slightly earlier American one from the wonderfully titled “Gentle Hortense; or, the Maiden’s Leap” by Emma E Specht: “Edward came in soon after, telling tall tales of the gentilhomme, who had been so kind to him”.