trite, contrite

My niece, Laura, asked whether there’s any connection between “trite” and “contrite.” You wouldn’t think there would be any relationship between a word meaning ‘clichéd’ or ‘overworked’ and another meaning ‘penitent’ or ‘sorry.’ Well, I hope this doesn’t rub you the wrong way, but there certainly is.

“Trite” comes from Latin trītus, past participle of terĕre to rub. Literally it means ‘well worn; worn out by rubbing; frayed; of a road or path, well-trod, beaten, frequented.’ But the word has been used in its present, figurative sense at least since the 16th century: ‘Worn out by constant use or repetition; devoid of freshness or novelty; hackneyed, commonplace, stale.’

“Contrite” comes from the same stem, trītus, with the added prefix con- ‘together.’ It was once used in the literal sense, ‘Bruised, crushed; worn or broken by rubbing.’ But as early as 1340 it was used figuratively: ‘Crushed or broken in spirit by a sense of sin, and so brought to complete penitence.’

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3 Responses to trite, contrite

  1. I wanted a good explanation for this, and you put it out there. Thank you!

  2. UGG!

    My (I felt) rational instinct with contrite was that it was the rational combination of ‘con’ and ‘trite’, namely “with” and “rub”. My instinct is that “contrite” should mean something that accompanies or causes rubbing or irritation, at least on a social level. Instead, as Kaplan was so kind as to point out, it means pretty much the exact OPPOSITE of that. It must come from them being loaned in separately, rather than as functions of the same word. Well, at least your article cleared THAT up. Thanks!

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