The word tattletale is a compound word that owes its roots to several languages. To tattle is to tell and is derived from the Flemish verb tatelen which means to stutter, and the Frisian term tateren which translates to “to tell tales or secrets.” Talo is a Germanic term related to the words talk and tell. When put together, as they were first in the 15th century, a tattletale is someone who betrays secrets or “tells on” others.
Most frequently, people associate the term tattletale with children. It is true that many children from the ages of 5-10 may display tattletale characteristics. Bill Cosby, in many of his standup routines about his family, called one of his daughters “the informer.” She would report on the other children’s misdeeds, and Cosby often joked that his wife always sent “the informer” with him whenever he went out.
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The motivation for becoming a tattletale may be in part to maintain order in a household, or school environment, and also to garner attention for one’s self. A child may be encouraged not to be a tattletale, which can create complex issues. There are instances when a child should legitimately tell something but holds back for fear of being labeled as a tattletale. On the other hand, some children just can’t hold back and must “tell on” other children. They may also be particularly bad at keeping any kind of secrets.
Discriminating between when one should hold a secret and when one should inform an adult usually develops as a child ages. However, some adults display tattletale characteristics as well, having never outgrown the need to tell. In addition to seeking attention, an adult tattletale may also be motivated by other selfish reasons. He or she may sadistically enjoy the punishment or embarrassment of others, or “telling” may be a convenient way of getting rid of obstacles, e.g., other employees, to promotions at work, for example.
Their peers often dislike both the adult and child tattletale because they get other people in trouble. They may be avoided or shunned, which may actually make the person tattle more since need for attention is met with less frequency. Adults who do feel they should legitimately report something may fear the label of tattletale just as much as children do. If they observe illegal activities in the workplace or in their neighborhood, they still may not report because a tattler is often despised.
For example, in prison settings a person who informs on other prisoners is often called a rat. A cop who reports illegal behavior of other members of the police force is called a narc. Both the rat and the narc can face life-threatening recriminations from their peers. It is fair to say, that in many circumstances, the tattletale is significantly discouraged.