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My girlfriend told me that the phrase "You can count on me" exists also in French, with the same meaning and as a literal translation

to count on s.o. => to rely on s.o.

In German, it is also the same

auf jmd. zählen => sich auf jmd. verlassen

I find it rather unusual that the same phrase can be literally translated between three different languages.

(I've found an explanation that says that "zählen" and "rechnen" were used synonymous in the dark ages and probably meant that someone is a constant on which you can rely, he doesn't change his "value" in the calculation.)

So my question is: What it is the origin of the phrase? Is it a common origin in German or English that found its way to the other languages? Or is the origin to be found much earlier, maybe in Latin?

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2 Answers

Another translation for "Auf jemanden zählen" should be "to reckon on sb" while "Auf jemanden verlassen" can be translated to "to rely on sb". Your guess concerning the etymology seems to be a good one, it makes sense to me.

I hope that helped at least a bit.

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This is not yet a full answer therefore I make it community wiki. I just want to share my ideas. Perhaps it's helpful.

As you know, both German and English are West Germanic languages. French, however, is a Romance language. So, you're presumably wondering why languages with different roots share a meaning. Well, to make it worse I guess Russian, a Slavic language, does have the same idiom, too.

My knowledge of Russian is too little so I can only come up with an example for "mit etw. rechnen". Perhaps someone can help me with an "auf etw. zählen" example. (@RegDwight?)

Я рассчитываю что ты сего́дня ве́чером придёт. (Ich rechne damit, dass du heute Abend kommst.)

I said, those languages don't share the roots. But going far, far back in history, all languages share the same root, though.

Of the twenty languages with the largest numbers of native speakers according to SIL Ethnologue, twelve are Indo-European: Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, Marathi, French, Italian, Punjabi, and Urdu, accounting for over 1.7 billion native speakers. Wiki

I highlighted the languages I mentioned before.

Since it's unlikely that all languages made the same development in recent times we can assume that this idiom is very old.

My guess is - but didn't found any sources - that the origin is the bible.

I tried to find some interesting hints in dictionaries about origin but nothing helpful here.

As a summary, here's what I collected:

Middle English (as a noun): from Old French counte (noun), counter (verb), from the verb computare 'calculate' (see compute) Oxford Dictionaries

Origin of COUNT Middle English, from Anglo-French cunter, counter, from Latin computare, from com- + putare to consider Merriam Webster

First Known Use: 14th century

1642 T. Fuller Holy State iii. xxiii. 218 There is lesse honesty, wisdome, and money in men then is counted on. OED - cited in chat

zählen Vb. ‘eine Anzahl feststellen, gelten, mit jmdm. rechnen, sich auf jmdn. verlassen’, ahd. zellen (8. Jh.), mhd. zel(e)n, zellen DWDS

Balzac, noch immer auf den Tod und die Millionen des Herrn von Hanski zählend, lügt tapfer weiter — St. Zweig Balzac 342

besonders häufig in neuerer sprache auf einen oder etwas zählen, einen oder etwas bei rechnung, bestimmung, voraussicht eines künftigen sicher veranschlagen, im wechsel mit auf einen oder etwas rechnen Grimmsche Wörterbuch

vgl. th. 8, sp. 354: zählst du so gewisz auf deinen genius? Klinger 5, 312; auf dich ist gezählt Göthe 12, 66 Weim.; das hab ich euch nie gesagt, dasz ich unter der hiesigen garnison meine vögel habe, auf die ich zählen kann, wie auf meine höllenfahrt

Other sources like Wiktionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, or MacMillan Dictionary do not add any essential content.

My knowledge of Russian and French is too little to read monolingual dictionaries of those languages to get more information about its origin.

This is all I get yet. Hope it helps though.

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