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RECENT HAPPENINGS in Helsinki have added the words “treason” and “traitor” to the SimanaitisSays Etymology for our Times. What follows here focuses on the words’ English language usage and origin, with citation of the smallest bit of legalese, and only hints at culpability. I leave these two to Robert Mueller et al and perhaps the U.S. Congress.

Merriam-Webster defines “treason” as “1. the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family. 2. the betrayal of a trust.” Not surprisingly, M-W defines “traitor” as “one who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty. 2. one who commits treason.”

Recent references are abundant. There’s The New York Times,, July 15, 2018, “Trump, Treasonous Traitor,” by Charles M. Blow. There’s the Boston Globe, July 16, 2018, “Is Donald Trump Committing Treason?” by John Shattuck. Holly Ellyatt,, July 17, 2018, wrote “ ‘Treasonous’ Trump and ‘Putin’s Poodle’: Scathing Headlines Follow the Helsinki Summit.” And even Douglas E. Schoen at Trump’s de facto propaganda agency, Fox News, July 16, 2018, wrote “Putin Eats Trump’s Lunch in Helsinki—This is No Way to Win Against Russia.”

Image from the Boston Globe, July 16, 2018, by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/File Photo/Adobe.

According to Merriam-Webster, the modern English word “treason” evolves from 13th-century Middle English tresoun. (Chaucer and his pals spelled capriciously.) M-W traces this in turn to “the Latin tradition-. traditio act of handing over, from tradere to hand over, betray—more at TRAITOR.”

And, sure enough, M-W cites traitor’s origins from the same Latin as treason’s.

The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School gets all precise about it, as, of course, it must. It shares 18 U.S. Code § 2381—Treason: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”

That is, we’re playing with big marbles here.

Image from Mother Jones by Nikolsky/Zuma.

It’s interesting to get a British opinion on all this, despite perhaps differing views on a U.S. traitor of note, Benedict Arnold. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines “treason” as “The action of betraying; betrayal of a trust undertaking by or reposed in any one; breach of faith, treacherous action, treachery.”

The earliest OED reference is from 1225: “Dauid .. dude .. treison and monsleiht on his treowe kniht Vrie, hire louerd.”

Dude, I’ll have to get back to you on that, but I believe I’m on Vrie’s side.

The OED defines “traitor” as “One who betrays any person that trusts him, or any duty entrusted to him; a betrayer. In early use often, and still traditionally, applied to Judas Iscariot.” It gives no mention of Benedict Arnold, either way.

Benedict Arnold, 1741–1801, Connecticut Colony-born traitor to the United States and its Continental Army.

Just for the record, after Arnold defected to the Brit side during the American Revolutionary War, he and his wife moved to London. According to Wikipedia, he was “well received by King George III and the Tories, but frowned upon by the Whigs and most army officers.”

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Brian Paul Wiegand
    July 20, 2018

    Putin’s intelligence services have a precise assessment of Trump’s psychology. Trump has no real motivation when it comes to ethics, morals, or principles, but does when it comes to seeking the approval of those he views as a “father” figure. Putin has told Trump that he is a “genius” for his views that NATO is “obsolete” and a drain on US resources; Trump is highly desirous of keeping what he thinks is Putin’s high regard of him. Even an apparent, not necessarily real, weakening of NATO will cause Eastern European nations to lose heart and facilitate Putin’s rebuilding of the Russian “Evil Empire”…

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