Till-ing Time

Figuratively Speaking

Today, a long-overdue look at an Old English word written in many ways and having many meanings.

Yet it’s a simple word of four letters, sometimes three.

Till allows us to dig in the ground, since it means to prepare and cultivate land for planting crops. My grandparents would till their land each spring to raise food crops for the summer.

This form of “till” comes from the Old English “tilian,” which means to strive for, or obtain by effort, from German, zielen.

Till also reflects our interest in money — a word I learned working in restaurants (along with “chit,”referring to money owed and in the restaurant business, the money totals for each wait staff. It comes from the Hindi word for note).

The till is the cash drawer in a store, bank or restaurant. We know the expression to have one’s fingers in the till — meaning to steal from the place where one works.

This form of till comes from Middle English in a general sense of a drawer for valuables.

Interestingly, till also refers to boulder clay or unstratified sediments, from a Scots word for shale.

Last, I’d like to mention till as a short form of until, which is often shortened to ’till or written as ’till.

I never know how to write this shortened form. I always vacillate between ’til and ’till, feeling that ’til is just to short. The dictionary says till is a short, informal variation of until, and that until usually appears in writing.

Until is a composite of till, which came from the Old English til, related to Norse til. Until came about when we tacked on und, meaning “as far as” from the Old Norse.

By the way, this sense of until — “up to (the point in time or event mentioned)” comes from the combination of und, as far as + till, cultivating the land for crops.

Back to till and til, ’till and ’til — a look at the AP Stylebook cleared things up. Till, but never ’til.

Too bad I waited until today to figure that one out.

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