Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered—as so many media outlets reported it—Article 50, which begins a two-year process of negotiations culminating in the UK’s exit, or Brexit, from the European Union. Let’s pull the etymological trigger on this truly historic word.
The noun trigger—a small lever which, when pulled, sets some force or mechanism into action— appears in the written record in the early 1600s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites it as tricker in 1621, specifically used of guns the following year. While the form trigger is attested in 1660, tricker was common until the mid-1700s, the OED says. The figurative, verbal trigger—to set off a chain of events—doesn’t emerge until 1930.
We pull a trigger for a good etymological reason: Trigger/tricker derive from the Dutch trekker, “trigger,” from the verb trekken, “to pull, draw, tow, march.” The deeper origins of trekken may be related to the same Germanic root that gives us track. The Dutch trekken also supplied the Afrikaans trek, which originally referred to “traveling by ox wagon” in 19th-century South Africa. In early 20th-century English, trek, as a noun and a verb, started naming any “arduous journey.”
Much uncertainty now awaits the UK, but one thing’s for sure. With Brexit triggered, the UK—as it boldly or foolishly, depending on your politics, goes where no nation has gone before—has a long and tough trek ahead.