Trading Places


Our Daily Correspondent


An illustration from the Betsy-Tacy series.

Repeating compliments to a third party is a bit like giving money: everyone’s glad to get them, but the giving can be awkward.

It was not always so. Time was, the passing on of compliments was so ritualized a part of life that the practice had a name: trade-last. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “a complimentary remark by a third person that a hearer offers to repeat to the person complimented if he or she will first report a compliment made about the hearer,” and dates the first recorded use of the term to 1891.

No doubt like many other readers, I first discovered the term in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. To the uninitiated, these nine autobiographical novels follow the career of aspiring writer Betsy Ray from the age of five to twenty-three; the reading level changes to match Betsy’s age (more or less). Thus they begin as children’s books and then, when Betsy reaches high school in 1906, they become what we might nowadays call YA. In the four books that take place around Deep Valley High School, Betsy and her beloved “Crowd” frequently exchange “trade-lasts,” or TLs, as they are known. It is customary, when given a TL, to return the favor at some point.

The practice ends up playing a key part in one of the last books, Betsy and the Great World. Having quarreled with her love interest, Joe Willard, Betsy breaks the ice in a letter by repeating a compliment she has heard about his writing. “I have a TL for you, Joe,” she writes, setting the stage for the reconciliation that culminates in the final volume of the series, Betsy’s Wedding.

If you keep your ears open, “TL” can also be found in old movies and the occasional radio show. I don’t know when or why it fell out of fashion; it is an eminently useful and civilized practice that eliminates a lot of social difficulty and encourages the repetition of nice things. How much easier to say, “I have a TL for you,” then “I heard something from someone I wanted to tell you,” or some other inelegant setup. I can’t imagine Betsy could have effected her reconciliation so breezily without the turn of phrase.

I have been singlehandedly trying to bring “TL” back into circulation, but as with any innovation—or reintroduction, I guess—it is uphill work. No one knows what you’re talking about, for one, and explaining the phrase takes way more time than just repeating a compliment (however inelegantly) would. It doesn’t help that, when provoked, I tend to launch into lengthy synopses of the entire Betsy-Tacy series; and making matters worse, the letters TL apparently stand, these days, for toilet, top level, team leader, and true love. Oh, and last, there’s the fact that, when questioned, I have absolutely no idea what trade-last means.