Another Victim of This Election: The Verb 'To Trump'

It had a good run.

Niccolò Frangipane depicts the triumph of Bacchus (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps you have just been playing poker, euchre, or whist.

Perhaps you have been thinking a lot about trumpets.

Or perhaps you have merely sought a verb in the past few months that means to defeat or to triumph. Maybe it’s been right on the tip of your tongue, feeling plosive and transitive and monosyllabic, when you realize—

Oh. I want to say trump, but I don’t mean that dude.

The Republican presidential candidate, lately famous for coarsening public debate and attempting to delegitimize the democratic process, has also perpetrated a crime against the English language. It seems probable that his campaign will doom a perfectly pleasant word, a happy verb with a 750-year history. That is, even after the election ends, speakers and writers of English might dump the verb to trump.

It had a good run. According to Eleanor Maier, an associate editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, trump first entered English in the late 14th century, as the modern language was taking shape. At the time, trump had nothing to do with a trump card, though. It didn’t even have the same Latin root. A trump was a trumpet, and if you trumped, you were just blowing a horn.

“Tromp”-ing in the Coverdale Bible

“I can noither tabre ne trompe, ne telle none gestes,” writes William Langland in his long poem, Piers Plowman.  Though this sentence is clothed in Middle English, readers of Shakespeare may recognize what’s happening: Tabre is the tabor, the little drum like a tambourine preferred by jesters and fools. Trompe is the trumpet. Written around 1380, this is the first written appearance of trump as a verb in English. It even precedes the appearance of trumpet, the noun, by about a decade.

For a long time afterward, all trumps were this noisy. A history of Richard I written 30 years later describes a regal scene: “They trumpyd, and her baners displaye of sylk.” When Myles Coverdale translated the Bible a century later, he described a similar scene during an ancient Judean battle: “The priests tromped with their trompettes.”

Even if they made a joyful noise, not all trumps were holy. “Trump also means, especially in British English, to, erm, break wind,” Maier told me. “That’s quite a common expression, and it’s related to trumpets as well.”

Trump has exuded this meaning for centuries. A Latin translation guide from the 1550s gave trump as a synonym for crepo, which it defined like this: “Trump or let a crackke, or fart.” (Crepo also means  “to rumble,” “to resound,” and “to burst asunder,” in case you doubted what kind of trump this was.) All this trumping makes you wonder what locals think about Trump Turnberry, the current candidate’s hotel property in Scotland.

In the 1550s, a second major meaning of trump appeared. Whenever a suit of cards took on special prestige, it became the trump. “Hearts is trump,” said the first mention in English. This trump had nothing to do with wind instruments, descending instead from the French triomphe. By the end of the 16th century, trump had its current meaning: a transitive verb that meant to win, to defeat. (During this century, trump took on other meanings as well, though most were fleeting. For a time, it meant to deceive or cheat. It also became a name for a worthless trifle—or, as we know it today, a trumpery.)

Since then, that trump has become more common, but the thunderous trump retains prestige. It’s this noisy trump, for instance, that still echoes through the King James Bible. At 1 Corinthians 15, a trump signals the Last Judgement: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump… the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” Several epistles later, the reader hears about “the voice of the archangel … and the trump of God.” (The OED clarifies that trump meant “to break wind audibly” more than 150 years before the King James translators began their work.)

A supporter holds a sign saying "Love trumps hate" at the 2016 Democratic national convention.
More like, Trump trumps “trump.” (Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters)

Now, alas, I worry that trump might lose its oomph. In the life of language, trumpery like this can happen: A word accidentally acquires a meaning that it did not once possess, and people discard it in disgust or despondency.

“I was having a think about this,” said Maier. “[Trump] is quite an established word so it would take a lot to get people to stop saying it.”

Sometimes these transitions only happen briefly. During the First World War, the United States and the United Kingdom changed the common names of objects to keep them from sounding too Germanic. American sauerkraut manufacturers dubbed their product “liberty cabbage,” and the British rechristened German Shepherds “Alsatians.” (“That is kind of a made-up word,” Maier told me.)

But the fit of Teutophobia did not last, and sauerkraut again garnishes currywurst. But political or sexual discomfort of other kinds has pushed words into disuse.

Maier told me that, until about 1800, rabbit was a word like puppy or kitten—it only referred to the baby version of long-eared hopping mammals. The adult name for a bunny was a coney, which people pronounced coon-y. But as cunny (which sounded identical) became popular as vulgar slang for the vagina, the pronunciation of coney transformed. By the mid-19th century, it had become cone-y. (In fact, an apocryphal etymology of Coney Island’s name says that the Dutch first christened it Conyne Eylandt, that is, Rabbit Island.)

By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, even this was not enough. Coney fell out of use, and rabbit came to refer to both the adult and juvenile creature.

Gender experienced a similar shift around the same time, Maier said. Until the late 19th century, gender referred only to the grammatical properties of words. Whether someone was a man or woman was said to be their sex. But as writers sought to avoid discussing the sex that means carnal embrace, they borrowed gender. Gender started its life as a euphemism.

Will such a fate befall trump? There’s no way to know, though I already see writers and speakers skipping the word in everyday life. Trump summons too much specificity to be serviceable now. Instead of a card game, or a heavenly blast, it now evokes the oddly-coiffed orange-skinned candidate.

Yet if it does fade, there will be an odd symmetry in its life. Triumph or triomphe has an ancestor word in the Latin triumphus, which itself comes from the Ancient Greek θρίαμβος.  That word, pronounced thriambus, signified a hymn to Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine and partying.

Renaissance painters would often depict these thriambuses—they called them the Triumph of Bacchus. These scenes often look similar to each other. A slovenly, vulgar, jovial man appears. His clothes don’t fit very well, and the people he travels with seem to be barely holding it together. But his fans are happy to see him: They are the poor, the down-trodden, the long-abused, the deplorable folks living outside the mainstream. This fat man (whose skin is an odd, not-quite-human reddish shade) has victoriously returned from the wilds beyond civilization, he has brought along that feral energy, and he wants to celebrate.

My analogy is not perfect: That heavy-set figure, Bacchus, was the god of wine; our contemporaneous candidate is a reported tee-totaler. But if our Trump trumps the verbal trumpery descended from this “Triumph,” well, that will be a trumping shame.