March 14, 2008


I'm not subject to word rage. I'm not a lexical purity nut, really I'm not; but I notice that the New York Times uses the word tryst, three times in one article, for the special times that disgraced ex-New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer set aside for his commercial encounters with young prostitutes in Washington, Florida, and Texas. Could we not reserve tryst for something a little more romantic? A secret arrangement between two lovers to meet for the mutual joy of private time alone together? Surely a necessary condition on trysts should be that both lovers are there for romantic reasons. Renting a hot babe with great hair for sexual services at a thousand bucks an hour (Spitzer goes for the expensive stuff, and has spent an estimated $80,000 on renting young women's bodies over the past year or so) is not trysting. For the call girl it's simply a client appointment. And for the client it is time booked and billed for, like time with a lawyer. The client can charge it to his American Express. Maybe even to his campaign funds (they're now looking into whether Spitzer did that). I don't think it's too puristic to suggest that in the typical tryst the parties have met before, are highly attracted to each other, have become romantically intimate already, and are yearning to see each other again. On the way to a tryst, two hearts should be going pitter-patter with romantic desire and excitement. And at a tryst no thousand bucks changes hands. Am I too far out of line with lexicographical normality here?

Of course, not calling them trysts would mean not being able to call the zealous FBI investigators trystbusters, as James Wimberley points out to me. But we can do without one bad pun, can't we?

[Update: I would like to thank a large number of the roughly 1.1 billion people of India for pointing out to me rather solemnly that my little flippancies above should not be allowed to obscure the fact that an earlier and more neutral sense of tryst, before it picked up the specialized sense of romantic assignation that I think it has now, meant simply "rendezvous", and in that sense it was used in the phrase "a tryst with destiny" in Jawaharlal Nehru's 1947 tryst with destiny speech, one of the most momentous speeches in the history of India, and a landmark of great political oratory.

So, now that my Indian correspondents have insisted that we get all serious lexicographically speaking, Webster says that a tryst is either (1) "an agreement (as between lovers) to meet" or (2) "an appointed meeting or meeting place". The Middle English origin lies in the 14th century word triste, used mainly for an appointed station for hunters (in fact the 27 bus in Edinburgh runs between Silverknowes and a place called Hunter's Tryst in the south). It is probably related to the word trust (the relationship between trysting and trusting being, of course, that normally you set up trysts with people of whom you can trust to be there). The specialization toward meaning (1) that I stress in the opening paragraph above seems to be a more modern development in the use of the word. The OED entry for the word seems, however, to have virtually no sign of the modern development. The OED entry is seriously in need of an update.

Not many people realize that the same is true for most of the entries in the OED. People who cite the OED as support are not just appealing to a settled authority of the last few years; they are often appealing to settled authority of the 19th century. The massive job of doing a true update of that magnificent reference work is really only in its earliest stages, and the total amount of effort needed will be huge. Language Log's own Ben Zimmer, God bless him and keep him, is one of the lexicographers engaged on the task. Our good friend and frequent correspondent Jesse Sheidlower is another.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 14, 2008 07:55 AM