A tell-tale is a reference indicator or a sign that clearly signals that something else is true or is about to happen.


In a nautical or sailing context a tell-tale is a piece of cloth or fabric that is tied or attached to a stay, one of several wires, that holds a mast in place on a sailboat. Usually there will be one tell-tale on the port stay and one on a starboard stay.

Tell-tales can also be attached to a sail, used as a guide when trimming (adjusting) a sail. On the mainsail tell-tales are on the leech (aft edge) and when trimmed properly should be streaming backwards. On the jib there are tell-tales on both sides of the luff of the sail. As a general guide, the windward tell-tale should stream aft (backwards) with an occasional lift, the leeward front tell-tale should stream aft.


The Phoenix spacecraft contains a tell-tale, developed by the University of Aarhus in Denmark, as part of its "Meteorological Station". [Citation
title=The Telltale project
author=Mars Simulation Laboratory, University of Aarhus, Denmark
] [Citation
title= Mars Probe Brings the "Weather Rock" New Respect
author=Slashdot 27may2008
] It is a small tube that will be deflected by the martian wind. The science payload’s stereo camera will record images of the tell-tale that will be used to determine wind direction and speed. [Citation
title=Phoenix Landing Mission to the Martian Polar North
editor=Nasa Press Kit/May 2008


In a steam locomotive the tell-tales are longitudinal holes drilled in the stays of the firebox to provide early warning of corrosion.

A tell-tale is also a series of ropes suspended over the tracks above the height of a boxcar. These ropes are intended to give warning to a brakeman on the roof of the train that the train is approaching a low-clearance obstacle, such as a tunnel or a bridge. A Chesapeake and Ohio Railway tell-tale had 17 of these ropes hanging from a tube suspended across the track, the bottom of the ropes 12" lower than the height of the obstruction, and placed 100 to 300 feet before the obstruction.


In linguistics a tell-tale is a string of characters that occurs only within one language within a group of languages. A reader can be completely certain which language they are reading if he or she comes across a tell-tale. In this sense, a tell tale is a dead give away of what the language is.

More formally, a tell-tale of a member L of some language class is a finite subset of "L" such that no other language containing the subset in the class is a proper subset of "L". In other words, a tell-tale is a finite subset that makes a language being a minimal consistent one in the class. The term is used in the field of artificial intelligence and machine language learning as well as linguistics. See also, Language identification in the limit


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