March 16, 2008

A tryst too far?

What characteristic is shared by sex outside of marriage, boxing matches, and meetings involving third-world leaders? As of a quarter-century ago, these were apparently the three types of events that writers for the New York Times called "trysts".

How do I know this? I looked it up, and you can too.

Why did I look it up? Like Geoff Pullum ("Tryst", 3/14/2008), I was puzzled that the OED's entry for the word tryst fails to mention the modern sense of "romantic assignation", and I wondered when and how this sense developed. The first place that I looked was the NYT's archive from 1981, and here are the first couple of dozen examples:

In ''The Tryst,'' a married man cannot stay away from his young mistress ...
... Roberto Duran's tryst with Sugar Ray Leonard ...
... Miss Levine turns their moon-haunted tryst into a dialectic of love and justice ...
Odette, the swan queen, is the realization of his swan obsession, and his final tryst with her takes place in a forest.
"You use me like an animal. Come here," says Juli, rather memorably, after one tryst.
... a completely fictional account of a ''tryst'' she and Charles allegedly had late one night on the royal train ...

That is a 10-round tryst with Ken Norton scheduled for Madison Square Garden May 11.
Anny, the family's unhappy daughter, has a midafternoon tryst with the hired man.
Julie was a 23-year-old secretary, Bob was a 44-year-old real estate agent. They had only just met and their tryst was not going according to plan.
Professor Honan speculates that he may have been ''halfrelieved'' by the unconsummated tryst.
... sneaking off to the nearby beach for his 9 o'clock tryst with his beloved Muriel McComber ...
Tarzan and Jane appear ready to enjoy their first tryst when C.J. interrupts their plans.
... he captures the romantic mood of an afternoon tryst in ''On the Lily Pond.''
Ned and Matty embark upon a sexual tryst that might be powerfully erotic were Mr. Kasdan not so concerned with his characters' posing.
... a puling practical nurse (Freda Scott), who watches the bartender fall apart after their brief tryst;
A tryst with Lira sends Bobby escaping the jealous husband by dashing home in nothing but Lira's angora sweater ...

... the senator suddenly shows up with a newly acquired lady friend. Object: tryst. Result: blackmail.
The Sudanese are deeply concerned about Colonel Mengistu's recent tryst with Colonel Qaddafi.
In her rhythmic, A-plus-B-equals-C fashion, the playwright shows us each nocturnal tryst ...
As the movie takes pains to point out, the tryst is a distinctly minor event for them both.
The first and only sexual tryst between Bart and Zack is the only real sex scene in the movie ...
..When Zach's wife goes away for the weekend on a business trip, Zach turns up at the writer's apartment for a prolonged tryst.
Maria has been jilted and so has Paolo, and they are ready to embark upon a long and acrobatic tryst ...

... he arranges a yearly European tryst with another lady ...
... Jeanne has a casual tryst with a stranger ...
... he sees his father in an apparent tryst at a local museum ...
... the clergyman had been surprised in a tryst with another man's wife ...

Searching the (London) Times adds an example of corporate dalliance:

It is a charming, painlessly hip modern animation brought to us by the Pixar tryst with Disney that produced Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life.

And a political example worth quoting at length:

I have never thought of John Hutton as a passionate man but yesterday he came to the Commons glowing. Yes, glowing, as he told us of his new amour. He had kept it a secret because, for Labour, this has been a love that dared not speak its name. But now that has changed. The Energy Secretary’s statement was long and detailed but it amounted to this: I (heart) Nuclear.

John spoke, with the deep yearning that befits a Mills and Boon hero, of an idyllic tryst that had taken place only the day before in deepest Suffolk. His new love may have an unconventional name (Sizewell B was popular for only a brief period in the 1980s) but he doesn’t care about such things. “Sizewell B is a phenomenal success story,” he told us dreamily. She was “probably the most successful PWR reactor in the world”.

Like the meeting of Colonels Mengistu and Qaddafi, these are clearly a figurative extension of (what has become) tryst's core "meeting for sex outside of marriage" meaning, which the OED has missed although it dominates usage at the London Times just as it does at the New York Times:

Just like Clinton’s (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) after his tryst with Monica.
... that tryst turns Jarry’s second demonstration of theft as performance art into a battle of wits between lovers...
While Viagra patients must take the drug at least an hour before a “tryst”, user-friendly Cialis is taken just once.
A dab of aftershave deals with most post-tryst suspicion ...
... Jettel incurs more jealousy by encouraging another tryst with a local farmer ...
... he did manage to slip in a quick tryst with one of his backing vocalists ...
... what will no doubt become an infamous celluloid sex tryst ...
... the broody supermodel is currently embroiled in a tryst with Guy Laliberte ...
... Pamela Anderson and Liz Hurley (after that unfortunate tryst on Oscar night) are deemed trashy ...

For the reference of those without a subscription, here are the senses in the OED's entry:

1. A mutual appointment, agreement, engagement, covenant. Now rare or Obs. exc. as in 2.
2. spec. An appointment or engagement to meet at a specified time and place. Chiefly in phrases, as to make, set tryst; to hold, keep tryst; to break, crack tryst; to bide tryst, to wait at the appointed place for the person with whom the appointment is made. Also fig.
Only Sc. till 19th c.
3. An appointed meeting or assembly: = RENDEZVOUS 5.
b. An appointed journey. Obs. rare.
4. An appointed place of meeting: = RENDEZVOUS 2.
5. An appointed time
6. An appointed gathering for buying and selling; a market or fair, esp. for cattle. Sc. and north. Eng.

It's easy to find 19th-century examples where tryst simply means "meeting", as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1850 sonnet Mountaineer and Poet:

The simple goatherd between Alp and sky,
Seeing his shadow, in that awful tryst,
Dilated to a giant's on the mist,
Esteems not his own stature larger by
The apparent image, but more patiently
Strikes his staff down beneath his clenching fist,
While the snow-mountains lift their amethyst
And sapphire crowns of splendour, far and nigh,
Into the air around him. Learn from hence
Meek morals, all ye poets that pursue
Your way still onward up to eminence!
Ye are not great because creation drew
Large revelations round your earliest sense,
Nor bright because God's glory shines for you.

I presume that at some point in the past 100 years or so, the sexual-assignation association became a reliable connotation and then a part of the core meaning of this word, to the point where people like Geoff Pullum and me take it for granted. I leave it up to the word scouts at the OED to determine when and how this happened.

But I can't resist observing that the legions defending the English language have not come forward to defend the traditional sexlessness of tryst.

Geoff tried to defend the purity of romantic motive in the assignation sense, but a citation from 1695 in the OED's entry for succubus suggests that this connotation has never been as pure as he would like:

1691 R. KIRK Secret Commw. i. (1815) 13 For the Inconvenience of their Succubi, who tryst with Men, it is abhominable.

And a quick search of Google's news archive for {"Christine Keeler" tryst} suggests that the word tryst was used in the 1960s roughly as it is has been recently in the Spitzer scandal.

[Update 3/17/2008 -- Ray Girvan writes:

A skim (admittedly unsystematic) of the Times Digital Archive of the 1960s finds a few examples of its non-romantic usage:

Dec 02, 1966
Times editorial re Harold Wilson's historic meeting with Ian Smith
"...Mr Smith, leader of a rebel regime, is flying to the tryst under the aegis of the governor..."

Jun 16, 1962
Editorial leader
"If Uganda is to keep tryst with the date set for its independence..."

Sep 25, 1963
Editorial re indepedence of Kenya
"pressure to keep tryst with December 12 is overwhelming"

A number of 20th century examples from the Times, if not explicitly  romantic, carry an implication of deep fatefulness and destined encounter close enough to be quasi-sexual: for instance, "India's tryst with destiny" on its independence; the pollarding of a blackthorn to make a walking stick - "Not Just a Stick: A Friend for Life"- described as "a secret tryst"; and Sherlock Holmes' "tryst with Moriarty" at the Reichenbach Falls.

But note that four of these examples involve third-world countries! ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 16, 2008 07:34 AM