The Grammarphobia Blog

Trust busting

Q: In one of the recent Republican debates, Rick Perry used “untrustworthy” instead of the appropriate “distrustful” or ”mistrustful.” Do we have another case of a Texas pol whose language is full of malapropisms, or is this unusual for him?

A: In the Oct. 11 campaign debate, Governor Perry said, “One of the reasons that I think Americans are so untrustworthy of what’s going on in Washington is because they never see a cut in spending.”

We won’t comment on Governor Perry’s grasp of English, beyond discussing the issue at hand—the mistaken use of “untrustworthy” to mean “distrustful” or “mistrustful.”

Someone who’s “untrustworthy” can’t be trusted. But someone who’s “mistrustful” or “distrustful” doesn’t trust someone else.

Understanding the difference is simply a matter of keeping one’s prefixes and suffixes straight.

The “un-” in the word “untrustworthy” means “not,” and the “-worthy” part means “deserving.” So an untrustworthy person or thing is not deserving of trust.

As for “distrustful” and “mistrustful,” the prefixes “dis-“ and “mis-“ are negatives and the suffix “-ful” means “full of” or “characterized by.” So if you’re distrustful or mistrustful, you don’t trust someone or something.

At the center of all these words is the noun “trust,” which has been around since the early 1200s and comes from Old Norse.

Derivatives that include “-worthy” (“trustworthy,” “trustworthiness,” “untrustworthy”) weren’t used until the 19th century.

“Untrustworthy,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, was first recorded in 1846 in Joseph Emerson Worcester’s A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language.

The OED has a couple of citations for the adjective used in writing.

John Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice (1853): “Knowledge is not only very often unnecessary, but it is often untrustworthy.”

And Reginald Bosworth Smith wrote in Carthage and the Carthaginians (1878): “The Gauls, untrustworthy as ever—except when led by Hannibal—were drawn up on a hill to the left.”

Derivatives of “trust” that include the “-ful” suffix (“trustful,” “distrustful,” “mistrustful”) date back to the 1500s.

We’ll end with a 1529 example from Thomas More. In his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he wonders “what wysedom were it nowe therein to shewe oure selfe so mystrustfull and waueryng ….. of god.”

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