The Grammarphobia Blog

Is this any way to talk to a boss?

Q: I work for a two-woman company. The other day I opened an email that was largely directed at my boss. I could have handled it, but I forwarded it to her with the comment “I trust you will take care of this one?” She was offended, and when I tried to defend myself, she criticized my grasp of English. Please advise!

A: We suspect that it was the tone of your comment—rather than the grammar or usage—that rubbed your boss the wrong way.

Did she have reason to take offense? Well, one meaning of the verb “trust” is to assume something, and she may have felt you were assuming too much.

Also, the word “trust” is sometimes used sarcastically and a sensitive person might pick up on that, even if no sarcasm was intended.

In fact, the only example given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) for this sense of the verb rings of sarcasm: “I trust that you will be on time.”

And a touchy or insecure boss might have felt that your comment was the kind of thing an employer, not a hired hand, would make.

We wouldn’t have worded a note to the boss that way, especially not to a boss whose antennae are especially sensitive. Something like “Shall I take care of this, or will you?” would have been more graceful.

But enough said. You don’t need any more criticism.

Let’s turn instead to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at the history of the verb “trust” and how such a trusting word took on a few negative senses.

When English adapted the verb from the Old Norse treysta in the early 1200s, it meant (and still does mean) to have faith or confidence in someone or something.

Over the years, it has added such positive senses as to depend on, believe, entrust, and so on. But it has also been used in negative ways.

Since the early 1800s, the OED says, it’s been “used sarcastically or ironically to express one’s assurance that a person will or will not do something.”

Here’s an example from Richard Bagot’s 1902 novel Donna Diana: “Trust a religious old maid for scenting out love!”

And according to the OED, the command “Trust!” has been used since the mid-19th century as “an instruction given to a dog, requiring it to wait for a reward, usu. in a begging position with a titbit placed on its nose.”

Though we’re both experienced dog handlers, we hadn’t heard of this usage. All the citations in the OED appear to be from British writers, and some use the command with people, not dogs.

Here’s a canine example from Julia Maitland’s 1854 novel Cat & Dog (the narrator is “a thoroughly well-bred dog”):

“To please Lily, I learned to sit patiently watching the most tempting buttered crust on the ground under my nose, when she said ‘Trust, Captain!’ never dreaming of touching it till she gave the word of command, ‘Now it is paid for’; when I ate it in a genteel and deliberate manner.”

You can’t offer your boss a tempting buttered crust, but a small bouquet might be a good idea.

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