The Grammarphobia Blog

Trust territory

Q: A “trusty” is a prisoner who can be trusted not to try to escape while a “trustee” is a person reputed to be of good character who can be entrusted with great responsibilities. So it’s laughable to hear people refer to “trustees” raking leaves outside a prison wall! I welcome your thoughts.

A: We can think of a few banking trustees involved in the foreclosure scandal who may end up as prison trusties, but let’s leave their fate to the courts.

As for the words, “trusty” is the usual spelling for a trustworthy prisoner, and “trustee,” broadly speaking, is the term for someone entrusted with property. Here’s how these words evolved.

Their ancestor, the noun “trust,” was first recorded in early Middle English sometime around 1200, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But it probably had a more distant, unrecorded history in Old English.

“Trust” was derived from a word in Old Norse, traust (help, confidence, firmness), the OED says. There are similar words in many other old Germanic languages, as well as in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.

And, as you might suspect, “trust” is distantly connected with “true” and “truth.”

The word “trusty” entered English as an adjective. When first recorded, it meant trusting—that is, having faith or confidence. But that meaning is rare today, and now the adjective means trustworthy, a sense it acquired in the 1300s.

But beginning in the late 1500s, “trusty” was also used as a noun for a trustworthy person—that is, someone who could be trusted, like a loyal employee or the faithful family retainer.

This is the sense of the word that was adapted into use in the American prison system in the mid-19th century, the OED says.

In the 1850s, Oxford explains, “trusty” was used both as an adjective and as a noun to describe a trustworthy prison inmate.

A “trusty prisoner” or, more simply, a “trusty,” is defined as “a well-conducted convict to whom special privileges are granted.”

Here’s the first such usage cited in the OED, from an 1855 issue of the San Francisco Citizen: “Two ‘trusties’ named Scottie and Greene, escaped in a whale boat from the State Prison grounds on Sunday night.”

A “trustee” is another person altogether (not that trustees haven’t occasionally found themselves in the pokey).

This noun dates from the mid-17th century, according to the OED, as a legal term for “one to whom property is entrusted to be administered for the benefit of another.”

But the word is also used more loosely to mean “one of a number of persons appointed to manage the affairs of an institution; also a member of the controlling body of a trust.”

Now for the flies in the ointment! There are two, but they’re easily dispensed with.

(1) Pronunciation. The two words, “trusty” and “trustee,” are generally pronounced differently, with “trusty” accented on the first syllable, “trustee” on the second.

Those are the only options given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “trusty” is also, though less commonly, accented on the second syllable. We don’t advise it. Anything that distinguishes between these two words helps!

(2) Variant spelling. The prison word “trusty” is occasionally spelled “trustee,” as in Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song (1979): “A trustee standing by a glass museum case was selling convict-made tooled leather belts to a group of tourists.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate makes note of this variant spelling of “trusty,” but American Heritage doesn’t mention of it.

Another source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, says the “trustee” spelling for a prisoner “is not common, and people who pride themselves on their spelling will undoubtedly call it an error. We recommend that you use trusty instead.”

We second that recommendation. These words are confusing enough when spelled the usual way. Why add to the confusion?

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