Tally-ho: From Fighter Planes to Norman Knights? September 2, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing has indulged himself in the last two months with a total of six RAF posts: all in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain. He knows though that enough is enough and thought that he would start to wind down with ‘tally-ho’: he promises no more than a couple new air posts before October.
Tally-ho was the word uttered by RAF fighter pilots over their intercoms as they spotted an enemy plane and plunged in for the kill. It remains in flying parlance to this day though its meaning has mutated somewhat with the years.
Now Beachcombing knows that the words that pilots mutter to each other and ground control are often inexplicably strange. But tally-ho has an interesting and, in part, a verifiable history.
Even today say the word tally-ho to a Brit and the vast majority will think not of planes but foxes. Indeed, until the UK ban on fox-hunting in 2004 tally-ho was the word used by horsed-up fox-hunters who had spotted the fox.
In the context of the RAF this is, in itself, revelatory. The young pilots who were rushed into fighter planes in the Second World War came largely – early on they came overwhelmingly – from the upper middle classes where fox-hunting was part of England’s ‘civic religion’. It would be interesting to know whether the phrase was already used in the First World War by pilots from a similar social class.
But where did the fox-hunting term come from? Here the controversy begins.
Beachcombing will try to open hostilities with some statements of fact. The first time that tally-ho appears written in English as a hunting cry is in 1772. Its first apperance in literature is as the name of a bawdy sort, Sir Toby Tallyhoe [sic] in Foote’s play The Englishman returned from Paris (1756). Then its only prior occurrences in writing is as a placename – there is a Tally Ho in Gloucestershire and also one in Devon (Ho = Height, is Tally Brittonic in origin?)
Here on in there is nothing but confusion.
It is true that in French taïaut is an equivalent hunting word. And it is possible that, in the late Middle Ages or in early Modern England, this was borrowed across the Channel: fox hunting as it is understood today began in the 1600s.
Beachcombing was going to be really irritating and suggest that perhaps tally-ho gave birth to taïaut. But the most authoritative French dictionaries give taïaut’s origins, instead, as taille haut(e) that has been explained, very doubtfully, as a battlefield instruction to take out swords!
(Beachcombing would bet a beer or a cheap book that the swords being pulled out has no foundation.)
Is a nativist etymology possible? In the context of a hunt ‘tally’ might perhaps mean ‘keep up’: tally itself could just about (?) be made to mean this in modern English.
Finally, Beachcombing’s oldest edition of Brewer’s records: ‘Tally-ho is the Norman hunting cry, Taillis an! (To the coppice). The tally-ho was used when the stag was viewed in full career making for the coppice.’
It would be nice to report that a word spoken by British fighter pilots could be traced back to the time of William the Conqueror, but Beachcombing’s first rule of history intercedes: the most boring explanation is invariably the correct one.
Beachcombing would love to hear any other explanations or any earlier occurrences or, indeed, any other uses of the word. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Note just to complicate things Tally-ho is a cigarette brand in Australia employed, by all accounts, for smoking illegal substances. Beachcombing is appalled.