Q: I recently read a British news report in which the word “trial” was being used as a verb meaning to test. Has this become a common usage? It sounds clunky to me.
A: Although the use of “trial” as a verb showed up in the US about a century and a half ago, it’s more common now in the UK.
The earliest example we’ve found is from Bessie and Her Friends, an 1868 novel in a series of children’s books by the American writer Joanna Hooe Mathews:
“Oh! we are very much trialed; are we not, Maggie?” (Bessie and Maggie were thwarted in their plans to pay for the medical treatment of a blind boy.)
The verb “trial” here is being used intransitively (without an object) in the sense of being tried or troubled.
The next example we’ve found (from the March 1888 issue of Wallace’s Monthly, an American sporting magazine) uses “trial” intransitively in the sense of competing in a horse race:
“She is a substantially put-up mare of well proportioned conformation and shows pure trotting-action, having trialed in 2:48 in her three-year-old form.”
And here’s an account of a dog field trial in the May 8, 1891, issue of the Fanciers’ Journal, a Philadelphia magazine:
“They would not put much pace on, and I don’t think Master Sam is nearly the dog at trialing as he was a couple of years ago.”
The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “trial” transitively to mean “submit (something, esp. a new product) to a test or trial.” Here’s the quotation:
“Several distribution models are already being trialled in the United Kingdom,” from Computers in Education (1981), by Robert Lewis and Eric Donovan Tagg. (The past tense and past participle are usually spelled with a single “l” now.)
The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says “trial” can also be an intransitive verb in reference to a horse, dog, or other animal that competes in trials (as in our 1888 example, cited above).
We compete with our golden retrievers in obedience trials, and sometimes hear “trial” used as an intransitive verb by handlers. But the intransitive use of “show” seems more common at US trials, as in “We showed in Utility B last weekend.”
A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database from newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters on the Internet, indicates that the use of “trial” as a verb is significantly less common in the US than in other English-speaking countries.
Here’s a Commonwealth example: “Researchers from the University of South Australia have successfully trialed the use of drones to remotely measure heart and breathing rates” (from a Sept. 28, 2017, article on New Zealand Doctor Online).
And here’s one from the US: “This is the first time that Walmart had trialed a service where delivery personnel would directly enter a customer’s home” (from a Sept. 21, 2017, article on TechCrunch).
The NOW corpus also has some examples for the verb “trial” used in the sense of trying out for a sports team.
An Oct. 25, 2017, article in the Connaught (Ireland) Telegraph, for example, refers to “all of the players who trialed and trained” for the Irish team in an International Rules football competition with Australia.
When the noun “trial” showed up in English in the early 16th century, it referred to the “action of testing or putting to the proof the fitness, truth, strength, or other quality of anything,” according to the OED.
The earliest example in the dictionary is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde, a priest-brother at Syon Abbey in England: “The tryall of our faythe, & examynacion or proue of our hope.”
The OED says the legal sense (“the examination and determination of a cause by a judicial tribunal”) showed up half a century later.
The first citation is from De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England (1583), by Thomas Smith:
“The Clarke asketh him howe he will be tryed, and telleth him he must saie, by God and the Countrie, for these be the words formall of this triall after Inditement.”
We’ll end with an example from Shakespeare’s Richard II (circa 1595). Here Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, responds when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, accuses him of treason:
“Ile answer thee in any faire degree, / Or chiualrous designe of knightly triall.”