What Trump Means

Mystery surrounds the exact timing of the event, but at some point, possibly as late as the turn of the 20th century, the forebears of the President of the United States dropped their German name, Drumpf, and became the Trumps.

It seems unlikely that they noticed that, in far-away England, their new name was a slang term for a noisy bodily function. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, a “trump” is “the act of breaking wind audibly”. The dictionary’s first citation is from Farmer & Henley’s slang dictionary, published in 1909, but as a verb it is recorded as early as 1552, in Richard Huloet’s Abcedarium Anglo Latinum, an English-Latin dictionary. To express “Trump or let a crakke, or fart” you use the Latin verb crepo.

The explanation for the slang expression, of course, is that “trump” was the original name for what we know as the “trumpet”, a noisy brass instrument. From the French trompe, the word came into English at the turn of the 14th century. It is used in the Cursor Mundi, the anonymous verse history of the world composed around 1300: “Wit harp and pipe, and horn and trump.”

It is used also in the Wycliffite bible of the late 14th century, but by the time of the Tudor bibles it had been replaced by “trumpet”, from the French trompette, that name originally signifying a smaller version of the brass instrument.

“Trump” was not only the instrument, it was the sound the instrument made. (Think of Nellie the Elephant, who says goodbye to the circus with a “trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump”.) By extension, it came to mean the act of speaking out in a trumpet-like or strident fashion. Just right for a presidential candidate, though possibly less so for a president.

If the Drumpfs considered the connotations of their new name, it seems unlikely that they worried about its undignified associations on these islands. (There is also an obsolete Scottish homonym, meaning “a thing of little worth”.) They may, however, have been more enthusiastic about another homonym, the “trump” used in winning card games and, figuratively, in life more generally.

A “trump” is a card of a suit which temporarily outranks cards of the other suits. The OED’s first citations come from John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments, better known as the Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563: “Cast thy tromp unto them both, and gather them all three together.” He is advising on how to strengthen one’s faith under duress, and talking metaphorically. The cards represent Christian virtues, and the “trump” card is a Christian heart.

Apparently the word was a corruption of the name of an earlier card game, “triumph”. Speaking of which, to achieve an unexpected triumph is to “turn up trumps”. The idiom is first recorded in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in 1785, although the association between “trump” and success is much earlier.

The verb “to trump”, meanwhile, has its own associations, possibly derived from the card game. To “trump” someone’s story or tactic is to beat it. In Tudor times, to “trump” was to deceive or cheat. To “trump in [someone’s] way” was to hinder or obstruct them. Those are gone now, but we still have the vestige of that usage. “To trump up” is to invent, forge or fabricate. It is first recorded late in the 17th century, but it is still with us in the shape of “trumped-up charges”.

People can be “trumps”. In 19th century slang, a “trump” was a fine fellow. “Well you’re a trump and I like you all the better for it,” says Zephyr, one of Mr Pickwick’s roommates in Fleet Prison. In Australia and New Zealand, meanwhile, a “trump” is person in authority*. Eric Partridge, the great slang authority, recorded this as Great War slang among New Zealanders, who spoke of “the Trump of the dump”. Later still, among Australian troops, “Trump” came to mean commanding officer. One consolation for the new Commander-in-Chief.

* Post-truth alert. I haven’t checked this with an actual living Antipodean. But I’m sure it’s true-ish.


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