I seem to be thinking a lot recently about words that can have two meanings.
Before we got onto that though, let’s take a quick look at the related noun: trial. It’s not hard to see the similarities in meaning. If take a trial run at something, you’re just trying it, without any consequences. Also, try and trial are obviously related because they sound really similar.
But then think about how else we use the word: in legal terms. If you commit a crime, you might be put on trial. Or to put it slightly differently, you might be tried. This is a much more serious, negative meaning of to try and trial. And we can see this negative meaning in a more general way when we say that something is trying, or perhaps just trying our patience. Trial can also mean a difficult experience that tests one’s endurance.
There’s no obvious link between these uses of the words, and their more everyday meanings. It’s there though, just buried deep down in medieval France. The modern verb to try can be traced back to the Old French trier, meaning to pick out or cull. The link with the modern word is the idea of choosing from a selection to find the right person or thing you’re looking for. You try each one until you find who or what you’re looking for.
This came to be extended to the legal sense of deciding if someone is guilty or not by examining them, perhaps having to choose from a number of suspects. Even in the case of there being only one subject, the sense remains of choosing by examination. The more general sense of suffering a difficult experience comes from how difficult being tried in this manner must be. Especially if you’re innocent, which would be a trying experience indeed.