Betray shares its root with treason and tradition.
Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?
“Handed down” from Latin
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests betray (Middle English, betraien) around 1250, when it meant “to lead astray” or “deceive” a trusting person. But by the late 1200s, betray specifically denoted “to give someone up to an enemy.” The noun betrayal doesn’t emerge until the early 1800s.
There is a good etymological reason for betray’s association with treason: They both share the same root. The Latin verb tradĕre, fusing trans (“across”) and dare (“give”), meant “to hand over” or “deliver.” It took the noun form trāditiō, variously refashioned by French and borrowed by English.
One derivative, as you may have guessed, is tradition (1380s), a “handing down” of some belief or custom from one generation to the next. Another is treason (early 1200s), from the French traison, a different rendering of trāditiō. Early on, treason referred to general “betrayal” before narrowing to efforts to overthrowing one’s sovereign or state. Traitor, via French traitor and Latin traditor, “betrayer,” literally “deliverer.”
And a fourth is the tray in betray. Likewise meaning “to betray,” it comes from the French trair, again from the Latin tradĕre. The OED also enters tray as a 15th-century interjection: Tray, tray, tray! “Betrayed! Treachery! Treason!”
Trouble all about
To tray Middle English added it to the prefix be–. This prefix, related to by and ambi-, originally meant “about,” as in become (“come about”). Over time, it intensified to “all around” or “all about,” showing up in a countless words like belittle and bespatter. Philologist Walter Skeat adds that the compound betray came about due to confusion with bewray, also a 13th-century verb meaning “to betray.”
This tray, however, should itself not be confused with another English tray. Not the flat serving dish tray, which comes from the same root as tree, but tray, an archaic word meaning “pain,” “grief,” “affliction,” and “trouble.” This word was often used in the expression teen and tray, teen from the Old English téona (“hurt”) and trega (“pain”).
As we see continue to see widespread fallout over Trump’s ban, perhaps we be justified in etymologically reinterpreting betray: be- (“all about”) and tray (“pain, trouble”).