It’s difficult to read any standard definition of the word trump and not feel that the lexicographers had an eye on the contemporary political moment.
The word may have never been on our lips as often as in the past year. The Google Ngram Viewer demonstrates an enthusiasm for the word trump as peaking in the 1890s, back in America’s Gilded Age, after which it went into decline until the beginning of this century. Now it seems that the media shall let no trump-less day go by.
Trump is a feature of bridge and other card games, many of which persist in our linguistic imagination primarily through literature. My experience of whist is restricted to novels. But as card players know, trump on its own can stand in for trump card, so the two terms are not easily disentangled.
The word trump has, in fact, different definitions, and they in turn derive from several different etymologies. Depending on the sense of the word you’re looking for and the dictionary you turn to, trump can be derived from Italian trionfi and so related to English triumph, or through High German to a cognate of the English trumpet, or through French to the verb tromper, meaning to deceive.
For example, Oxford’s online French dictionary looks at tromper with attention to the political, as in the example tromper l’opinion publique/ les électeurs (“to mislead the public/the voters”).
Trump has, of course, many other associative meanings, frequently denoting some aspect of superiority. Merriam-Webster ranks them as three:
1. “a card or a suit any of whose cards will win over a card that is not of this suit”;
2. “a decisive overriding factor or final resource”;
3. “a dependable and exemplary person.”
As a verb, to trump is straightforward, aggressive, simple, positive: “to get the better of.”
These moments of dictionary prescience might lead us to think that trump is the name of any of the contestants in the presidential sweepstakes, since any one of them needs to get the better of all the others, becoming “a decisive, overriding factor” one way or another, in order to win over lesser — and therefore trumpable — candidates.
Trump seems to bear connotations of both quiet power and big noise. The OED demonstrates the connections between trump and many senses of trumpet. In 1805, Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel included the line “When louder yet, and yet more dread, Swells the high trump that wakes the dead!”
This sense of trump as trumpetlike takes on a further range of associative and imitative meanings, from a crane’s neck to an elephant’s trunk and “the proboscis of an insect” (I pass over the sense of trump as sound resulting from digestive misfortune).
Dictionaries are subtle things. Unlike Merriam-Webster, the OED’s sense of trump as an element in card games is less certain, more contingent. Thus the OED gives us trump as “a playing-card of that suit which for the time being ranks above the other three” [italic mine, or perhaps Hillary Clinton's]. There is risk in being trump.
Yet to “turn up trumps” is to have good fortune, to have something lucky happen to you. On the other hand (this is very much an on-the-other-hand term) a trump can be “a thing of small value, a trifle.”
What might be most interesting, then, about trump is its capacity to function as an auto-antonym, a word containing multiple meanings among which are opposites. A trump can be “a person of outstanding excellence” (OED) — or a fraud.
Like cleave, a word whose opposite meanings (to split, to cling to) are dear to readers of John Milton, the word trump looks in both directions.
And that might be the only connection this writer can draw between the high, heroic style of 17th-century poetic politics and the national spectacle unfolding before us, like a game of cards.
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