Usage Notes

The Deal With 'Trader' and 'Traitor'

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What to Know

A trader is a merchant or one who engages in trade, whereas a traitor is one who betrays another, or commits an act of treason. Their pronunciations are distinct, but can often sound similar when spoken aloud.

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'Traitor' derives ultimately from the Latin verb 'tradere,' meaning "to hand over, deliver, or betray."

The words trader and traitor are near-homophones, which can sometimes lead to their confusion, particularly among non-native speakers.

Trader

A trader is a merchant, or a person who engages in a trade. It is often preceded by the item being bought or sold, as in fur trader. More modern examples might be stock trader or cryptocurrency trader. The term horse trader refers to someone in the horse trade—that is, the kind of negotiation marked by shrewd bargaining.

There is a bit of an antiquated suggestion in the word as most business deals now involve buying and selling for cash rather than the item-for-item swaps that the verb trade (a word which was derived via Middle English from Middle Low German) implies. Trader might be best recognized in the name of the grocery-store chain Trader Joe's.

Traitor

A traitor is a person who betrays another's trust, or more commonly, one who commits the act of treason (betraying one's country).

Students of American history often associate the label traitor with Benedict Arnold, who during the American Revolution communicated American military strategy to British officials and later demanded money from them for promising to betray an expected post at West Point.

Traitor derives via Middle English and Anglo-French from the Latin verb tradere, meaning "to hand over, deliver, or betray." Tradere was formed by the roots trans- ("over, across") and dare ("to give").

And while trader comes with the obvious base verb trade, the verb closest in relation to traitor is betray (also derived from tradere). Betray also has meanings pertaining to other kinds of giving away ("a grim that betrayed his intentions"), which is perhaps why we are more likely to eschew a verb when referring to traitorous activities and just say that a traitor is one who commits treason.

A lesser-known synonym for traitor is quisling, named for the Norwegian military officer Vidkun Quisling, a fascist who collaborated with Nazi powers and encouraged Adolf Hitler to occupy Norway at the beginning of World War II.

Traitor and trader have distinct pronunciations, but their distinctions are sometimes difficult to pick up in flowing speech. And while context can usually point to which meaning is intended, there are occasionally situations in which both terms might come up:

It’s time for all of them to come down, all 1,712 (according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) statues, plaques, schools, roads, federal military bases, buildings, parks, and other public monuments – most built decades after the Civil War to impress their existence during the Jim Crow era – that presume to honor traitors and slave traders.
— Robert Azzi, The Concord Monitor, 28 June 2020



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