What does tally mean and Where does the word “tally” come from?

For a number of centuries the British Exchequer kept its accounts by a system that now seems fantastic.

A stick of willow or hazel, about one inch square and twelve inches long, represented each transaction, the nature of which was written on two opposite faces of the stick.

The sum of money involved, as, for example, a loan to the royal crown, was indicated by notches cut across the other two faces, the character, size, and depth of the cuts accurately representing the amount of the transaction in pounds, shillings, and pence.

After the account was thus marked by characteristic notches, the stick was then split in half lengthwise across the cuts, each half thus having the entire series of notches.

One half was given as a form of receipt to the person making the loan and the other was retained by the Exchequer. Each party thus had a record of the transaction.

The stick was called a tally, talea being the Latin for “stick.” The system was completely abandoned in 1826 and the great accumulation of the wooden tallies was then used as fuel for the stoves in the houses of Parliament.

In October of 1834 so much of this dried wood was piled into the stoves that they became overheated, thus setting fire to and burning down the houses of Parliament.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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