A Treatise on Parallel Adjectives

Or, how we have both 'trusty' and 'trusted'

The English language loves adjectives so much that it is bursting with them. Like the weeds that grow in cracks of sidewalks, we find adjectives that either duplicate meanings or divide into ever finer distinctions. It’s hard to imagine a difference in meaning so small and yet so recognizable as that between, say, rusty and rusted—words that certainly overlap in meaning but also have lexical lives all their own.

mountain climbers rappelling in a row

Trusted friends, trusty climbing equipment

How Adjectives Are Formed

One reason for the proliferation of overlapping adjectives is that English readily forms adjectives from both verbs and nouns. Adjectives formed from verbs use the past participle of the verb:





These root words also have parallel adjectives that are formed from their analog nouns, using the -y ending that conveys the meaning “having the quality of the noun so modified”:





Despite sharing basic meanings, these words aren’t always synonyms. One general observation is that the verb-formed -ed adjectives could be said to be the result of some process, action, or change: salt is added to something to make it salted; weight is added to make something weighted; a quick sprint can make someone winded. It’s as if these adjectives express the consequences of a verb’s action.

By contrast, the parallel adjectives formed from nouns with -y express a state of being. (They are, for want of a better word, nouny.) Being salty is a condition that cannot be reversed; weighty is usually an imposing physical or metaphorical burden; the weather is either windy or it is not.

Adjectives are also formed from nouns using -ed, generally indicating something or someone “furnished with” or “having”:

cultured, bearded, diseased, moneyed, winged, talented

Others mean “having the characteristics of”:

bigoted, dogged

This -ed ending is also the way that we turn noun phrases into adjectives:

black-haired, three-headed, hourglass-shaped

The fact that both verbs and adjectives can be properly formed by adding -ed only causes confusion or consternation if you expect English to be governed by the fantasy of logic rather than the seemingly opportunistic or chaotic reality that is English morphology. Indeed, some language commentators in the past have insisted that such adjectives, based on nouns but apparently following a pattern more usual for verbs, were improper, incorrect, and “barbarous.” These insults were directed with particular vehemence to the use of the otherwise innocent and useful word talented.

As a matter of dictionary policy, since -ed adjectives are both common and predictable in meaning, they are typically not given their own entries and definitions, unless the adjective conveys something specific that is distinct from the verb or noun upon which it is based. This is why, for example, spoiled doesn’t have its own entry in our dictionary, but entitled does.

'Trusty' vs. 'Trusted'

Let’s take a closer look at the pair trusty and trusted. Following the verb/noun distinction mentioned above, we see that one has gained the trust of another to be trusted and one that is worthy of trust is trusty.

The words most frequently associated with trusted include:











The list of words modified by trusty:











The obvious contrast between these groups of collocations (words frequently used together) is that the words associated with trusted mostly refer to people, while those most associated with trusty refer to animals, equipment, and tools in addition to people. We therefore say “trusty Swiss Army knife” but never “trusted Swiss Army knife”; its utility and dependability are inherent, not sought, developed, or earned.

This distinction is relatively recent; it seems to have settled into its current usage by the 1940s. Shakespeare had used trusty for both meanings (“trusty servant” and “trusty sword” occur in his works), and both Dickens and Conan Doyle used trusty to describe people rather than animals or things. Emily Dickinson used the word to mean something closer to trustworthy or dependable:

Trusty as the stars

Who quit their shining working

Prompt as when I lit them

In Genesis’ new house,

Durable as dawn

Whose antiquated blossom

Makes a world’s suspense

Perish and rejoice.

Today this usage sounds archaic or unusual to most English speakers. Indeed, the King James Bible used trusty as a noun, meaning “trusted advisors,” something that would be recognizable and poetic in the manner of many adjectives when used as nouns. It’s still comprehensible to us today, but this use is now obsolete:

He removeth away the speech of the trusty, and taketh away the understanding of the aged.—Job 12:20

The way we use trusty and trusted has evolved naturally over time. As far as we can tell, these distinctions have developed without the effortful and earnest arguments of those who like to identify usages and then impose them on others, as we might see with the more deliberate usage distinctions present in pairings like uninterested and disinterested or further and farther. English thrives on the combination of nuance, color, and precision that comes from adjectives that share a spectrum of meaning, and often enough that meaning is based on, well, trust.