English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

On tilling and tills

Q: Your post about “no money in the till” made me wonder whether “till,” the cash box, is related to “tilling” the fields to make money. Or perhaps not make money if the till is empty. 

A: No, the verb “till” (to cultivate land) and the noun “till” (a money box) aren’t related, though they both have ancient Germanic roots.

When the verb showed up in Old English (spelled “tilian”) in the late ninth century, it referred to “striving to obtain a goal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the Old English word is ultimately derived from a prehistoric Germanic term, reconstructed as tilam, meaning “aim, purpose.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I: “He sceal tilian ðæt he licige” (“He shall strive that he please”).

This sense of striving or exerting oneself toward a goal evolved over the next few centuries to mean to cultivate the land, according to citations in the OED.

By the 12th century, the citations show, the verb “till” was being used in the agricultural sense of “to bestow labour and attention, such as ploughing, harrowing, manuring, etc., upon (land) so as to fit it for raising crops.”

The OED’s first example for this sense is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Þat lond heo lette tilien” (“That land he delayed tilling”).

By the late 14th century, it was also being used specifically in reference to plowing the land. The first Oxford example is from William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (1377):

“My plowman Piers … for to tulye treuthe a teme shal he haue” (“My plowman Piers … shall have a team [of oxen] to plow true”).

Now for the cash box. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the noun “till” is derived from tylle, Anglo-French for a compartment, and tille, Old French for a compartment as well as a shelter on a ship.

In Old Icelandic, the dictionary notes, thilja meant a plank or floorboard, a usage that can be traced back to theljon, a reconstructed proto-Germanic term for a flat surface.

When the noun “till” showed up in English writing in the 15th century, it referred to a closed compartment located within a chest or cabinet and used for keeping all sorts of valuables, not just money.

The OED’s first citation is from Munimenta Academica (1452), a collection of documents relating to the University of Oxford that were compiled by the Rev. Henry Anstey. This example is primarily in Latin, with the Middle English “le tylle” showing its French origins:

“Prout patet in scriptis indenturis positis in ‘le tylle’ in studio meo Oxoniæ” (“Insofar as it can be seen in the written indentures placed in ‘the tylle’ in my Oxford study”).

In the late 17th century, the noun “till” took on its usual modern sense, which the OED defines as “a drawer, money-box, or similar receptacle under and behind the counter of a shop or bank, in which cash for daily transactions is temporarily kept.”

The first example of this usage in the dictionary is from a 1698 entry in the London Gazette: “Lost out of Mr. Wray’s Shop in Little-Britain, a Til.”

Getting back to your question, are the verb “till” and the noun “till” related?

No. While they both have prehistoric Germanic roots, the verb ultimately comes from a term for an aim or a purpose, while the noun comes from a word for a flat surface.

If you haven’t had your fill of “till,” you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2006 on “’til,” “till,” and “until.”

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