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A tall tale is a folkloric story that is generally wildly exaggerated and told for the amusement of the listeners. Tall tale tellers usually claim some sort of personal involvement in the story. I was curious about the origin of the phrase itself, and in the course of poking around, I found that tall in this phrase means exaggerated, so "tall tale" means an "exaggerated story."

What I can't seem to find is where this term originated. It seems to be sometime in the middle to late 1800s in the US, but who coined this term? Was it a famous author? Did someone publish a book of tall tales around that time?

(More specifically, the argument revolves around whether or not Mark Twain was responsible, although if it's not him, then who?)

EDIT: According to Etymology Online, tall "meaning 'exaggerated' (as in tall tale) is Amer.Eng. colloquial attested by 1846." (Now I will look to find where it is attested in 1846.)

Another Edit: An additional bit of interest is that a tall tale is considered folklore, and this word (folk-lore) was very famously coined by William Thoms in 1846.

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I always thought that the phrase was a reference to Paul Bunyan, THE "tall tale", but I don't have any references to back that up. –  KeithS Jun 27 '11 at 14:55
    
Were tall tales originally oratorical tales, which then spread much like rumors do, resulting in their exaggerated nature? If so, it might be very difficult to pin down when the first usage of "tall tale" was used. Could the term have been commonly spoken prior to its being written? –  Eri Jun 27 '11 at 15:54
    
Using tall with tale/story is trivial metaphorical usage that doesn't really justify searching for "first recorded use". Both forms were probably repeatedly re-coined anyway, in speech and writing. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 16:10
    
@Fumble My interest justifies it for me. –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 16:33
    
@Eri Tall tales are like a storytelling genre, but the exaggeration is intentional (unlike a rumor) and part of the style of telling. I don't know if it was used in spoken English a long time before it was written, but I suppose it's possible. –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 16:42
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4 Answers

Ngrams show usage since around the right time

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and the term definitively has its place in American short story, which was one of Mark Twain's playgrounds. However searching through Mark Twain's writings, gave no results so I wonder if it could have been him.

Wikipedia references points to several interesting sites; tall-tale postcards starting at 1908.

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The first two instances I could find of "tall tale" in Google books, 1879 and 1881, were both Canadian. –  Peter Shor Jun 27 '11 at 14:31
    
Here's one from London, 1839 books.google.com/… –  Unreason Jun 27 '11 at 14:38
    
@Unreason: that's a typo for tell-tale (although the printed words are clearly tall-tale.) –  Peter Shor Jun 27 '11 at 14:39
    
@Peter, yes, agree, just was thinking about it myself –  Unreason Jun 27 '11 at 14:41
    
Thanks for the link for searching Mark Twain's body of work — that's a great resource! I guess you are right that he probably didn't come up with this phrase. That's a bummer; I had lunch riding on it. –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 16:37
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The more common expression originally was tall story. Here's an NGram showing how the two variants stacked up before the US started getting seriously attached to tall tale in the 1930s... . ...and here's a snippet from the Athenaeum magazine showing that even back in 1870, we Brits recognised the metaphorical tall as American. But as other NGrams show, the US tall tale usage didn't really dominate until the 1940s.

I don't think there's anything remarkable about using "tall" to mean "exaggerated". As to why US usage massively favoured coupling it with tale rather than sticking with the established story, I think Americans just like the partial alliteration better, so it caught on.

LATER As mentioned elsewhere, I don't think it's meaningful to look for a "first use" of the tall tale variant. However, I do suspect that an important factor in its sudden rapid rise starting in the late 1920s may be the Paul Bunyan stories which became incredibly popular around then, and were invariably refered to as tall tales (the fictional character Bunyan was always depicted as a big, tall man).

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Thank you for the "tall story" information, but to be clear, I am specifically interested in the first use of "tall tale." –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 16:35
    
@Kit: Per my comment on your question, and the last paragraph of my answer, I really don't think it's meaningful to look for a "first use" of either variant. You'll find "Tall-tale women" in Shakespeare's Richard III, for example. Such transparent metaphorical usage would probably be repeatedly "re-invented" by people who didn't know it as a "stock phrase". –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 17:29
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@Fumble I have only found "tell-tale women" in Richard III. I haven't yet found any reference to "tall tale" prior to the late 1800s (except for typos and OCR errors), and while it might not be meaningful to you to find the first use of the word, it is meaningful to me. –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 17:46
    
@Kit: I stand corrected re "tell-tale", but I still don't think I can help with your search for a specific early usage. The term was clearly around for generations before it suddently took off in the US within a decade or two in the 1920s. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 17:51
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@MrHen: Done. I don't know why I never thought to do that before, but in future I'll try to make a point of including the link as well as the chart itself. I only chose that particular date range because I wanted to show what was happening prior to the big rise. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 18:14
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Found this 1873 reference via Michael Quinion's discussion of the phrase. It's from a story called Gentle Hortense; or, the Maiden’s Leap by Emma E. H. Specht:

http://books.google.com/books?id=CUjQAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA475&dq=Emma+E.+H.+Specht&hl=en&ei=bNkMTtG5CNPegQempJThDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBQ#v=snippet&q=tall%20tales&f=false

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Here's a possible early example from The American Museum for February, 1788:

Here are a maiden's coaxing eyes: these pretty tall-tales always give the tongue the lye ; for whenever their fair mistress fays, " Ah go away !" these little things always cry out " stay !"

A 1752 printing of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar includes tall-tale:

You speak to Cæsca, and to such a man, That is no fleering tall-tale.

Modern copies render this as:

You speak to Casca, and to such a man
That is no fleering tell-tale.

So the 1752 was probably a typo, but could the mistake have been influenced by the existence of tall-tale?

The same applies to this 1714 printing of The Life and Death of Richard III:

Let not the Heav'ns hear these Tall- tale Women Rail on the Lord's Anointed.

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