The 2016 “Etymology of the Year”

The mouth of Donald Trump excited a tremendous – er, huge – amount of etymological activity on Mashed Radish in 2016. But there’s one that easily trumped them all: the word trump itself, the winner of my first annual “Etymology of the Year.”

Trump

In early modern English, trump meant “to cheat” or “deceive.” This verb, first found in the 1480s, comes from the French tromper, meaning the same as the English. The origin is unclear, but some have suggested the French used tromper, which could also mean “to play the horn,” as an idiom for mockery. Various fraudsters, the theory goes, once blew horns to attract people to their swindles. The verb shows up in trompe l’oeil, “trick of the eye,” referring, especially, to optical illusions in visual art.

The French tromper, as its brassy connections already suggested,  is indeed related to English’s own trumpet, of which trump is itself the earlier variation. In a painful irony to many, the last trump, based on a translation from the Greek, was once the term for the sound of the trumpet that raised the dead for judgment at the end of the world, according to the New Testament. Trump may have also influenced the use of trunk for an elephant’s snout.

Another instrument, the trombone, shares a deeper, Germanic source with trumpet, from a root which imitates a sudden blast of sound. And drum may additionally be related, or at least formed in a similar fashion. The “deceitful” trump later produced trumpery, whose meaning of “trickery” inspired a sense of “goods that are showy but cheap,” further extended as an adjective for “trifling” or “trashy.”

Now, the Trump family surname was at one point modified from Drumpf, much to the amusement of comedian John Oliver during the presidential campaign. Drumpf is a Germanic name, and could be connected to the root for drum. Trump, unchanged, is a surname from the French Trompeor, rooted in the same tromper and meaning a “maker of trumpets.” 

Trump cards, meanwhile, are played from a different etymological hand. This trump is believed to be a corruption of triumph, once the name of a card game. A triumph, or “great achievement,” comes from the Latin triumpus, which was a procession a military general lead into Rome after a big victory. Its origin is also unclear, but a possible source may be the Greek thriambos (θρίαμβος), referring to a hymn in honor of the fertility god Dionysus, frequently associated with his cult of ecstatic hedonism. The deeper root of the Greek thriambos may be a kind of triple-time march-step.

Loud and brassy noise, deception and showiness, elephants, Ancient Roman victory tours, games, cultish followings? There’s only one etymology that could possibly bring all these Trumpian elements together – and that’s trump.

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“Hallelujah”: word of praise, lord of song

We lost yet another great this year: Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet who passed away at 82. Cohen was perhaps best known for his much storied and much covered song, “Hallelujah.” In honor of the legendary artist, let’s pay tribute to the etymology of one of his most defining words.

Hallelujah

Hallelujah is an interjection used as an expression of worship: “Praise the Lord!” The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in the 1535 Coverdale Bible, the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The term mainly appears in the Psalms, which originally were religious songs. The English Hallelujah renders its Hebrew root, hallĕlū-yāh, among other transliterations: “praise God.” The Greek, and later Latin, rendition of the Hebrew also gave English alleluia, which is attested far earlier, in Old English. 

The Hebrew hallĕlū-yāh comprises two elements. The first, hallĕlū, is the plural imperative of hallēl, “to praise, extol, celebrate.” A plural imperative directs more than two people to perform an action, which is why many older Bibles translate hallelujah as “Praise ye the Lord!” (Today, we just use the pronoun you for both one you and more than one you, but English used to have ye to refer to two or more people.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Hebrew hallēl is imitative, a word for “praise” derived from the sound of an exalting trill.

The second element yāh is a shortened form of Yahweh. The history of Yahweh is a complex one, involving both deep religious beliefs and deep structures of Semitic languages. To put it simplistically, for many Jews, both now and in the past, the name of God was believed too holy to utter. So, sacred texts would render the name as YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”), which scholars later vocalized as Yahweh or Jehovah. Some think YHWH itself may come from a root verb hāwāh, “to be,” making Yahweh literally mean “he that is” or “the self-existing.”

It can be difficult to reconcile Cohen’s dirgeful, cold, and broken hallelujah with its exclamatory, worshipful origin – though difficulty is at the very core of Cohen’s entire artistic project. But perhaps the raw, naked, and ancient etymology of hallelujah well captures the emotional energy of Cohen’s most famous song: a searching and yearning for some bigger meaning, which he finds in the self-existing sound, in a literal hallelujah. “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,” he sang, “With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

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The origin of “keynote” is an incredible lesson in American history

It’s political convention season in the US, and that means the fanfare of hats, the ritual of state roll-call votes, balloon drops, and lots and lots of keynote speakers. But keynote addresses aren’t just part of the great tradition of US party conventions: the very usage of this word keynote is rooted in American history.

From music to metaphor: keynote

Back in the late 1600s, a keynote referred to the first note – and basis of – a musical key, like C major. Today, musicians more commonly call this the tonic. But the concept of a keynote plays well as a metaphor. The main idea of a speech or text acts like a keynote, sounded at the beginning, resolved to at the end, and setting the prevailing tone throughout. The Oxford Dictionary English (OED) dates this figurative usage to 1763.

It’s not until the following century in America when we see keynote applied to the meaning most familiar to modern speakers: the keynote address, which sets out the central theme of a conference or convention, and typically the main speech of the affair. The OED finds keynote address in an 1891 edition of Illinois’s The Decatur Daily Republican, but keynote speech, its now less common counterpart, appears decades earlier – right in the thick of the Civil War and in reference to a very controversial figure, Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham.

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Clement Vallandingham (1820-1871), controversial Civil War-era politician. The keynotes he sounded in his keynotes weren’t quite so harmonious. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Off-keynote speeches

During the Civil War, Vallandigham was one of the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” These conservative Northerners supported the Union but opposed the war, urging an immediate, peaceful settlement with the Confederacy instead. Vallandigham’s apparent pacifism, however, wasn’t so innocent; he did not want abolitionism to enfranchise blacks.

In January 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech to the US House of Representatives called “The Constitution-Peace-Reunion,” where he denounced Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and even Wall Street. “Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, these are your trophies,” Vallandigham excoriated Union efforts. The New York Herald, sympathetic to the Democratic Party during the war, reported on his speech: “Vallandigham’s Great Speech on ‘Peace’ and ‘Reconstruction’… The New York Freeman’s Journal of this week has this ‘keynote’ speech in full.”

Vallandigham’s vehement criticism of the Lincoln administration compelled Ohio General Ambrose Burnside – whose name actually lives on in sideburns, as he so sported his facial hair – to issue an order against what he saw as treasonous expressions of sympathy with the South. On First Amendment grounds, Vallandigham vociferously challenged his order, delivering a speech where he attacked his president as “King Lincoln.” He was arrested and convicted in a military court. In 1864, he appealed to the Supreme Court in Ex parte Vallandigham but the justices turned it down, claiming no jurisdiction (and seeking to avoid the troublesome matter of habeas corpus).

Lincoln sentenced Vallandigham to exile in the South, but the unrelenting Copperhead snuck back to the North – apparently disguised in a fake beard with a pillow stuffed in his shirt – to continue his anti-war (and anti-abolition) crusade. He even appeared at the 1840 Democratic National Convention – where he delivered, yes, a keynote address insisting on a peace plank in his party’s platform.

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Music and monarchs: ‘royal’ roots

Yesterday was a big day for royal titles – in some ways glad, in other ways very sad. Queen Elizabeth reached a momentous 90 while Prince shockingly passed away at 57. Both, it turns out, live up to the etymologies of their names, in a manner of speaking.

Queen

At 90, Queen Elizabeth II is the UK’s longest-serving monarch, her rule spanning over 63 years. The word queen, however, has been reigning in the English language for much, much longer.

We have evidence of queen in several Old English manuscripts, where the word appears as cwēn, among other forms. French had a significant impact on Middle English, as we see often on this blog; in this case, it influenced the substitution of qu– for cw– to spell [kw].

Queen is very old, but its meaning has been largely constant, long referring to a “female ruler.” However, as the early record indicates, a queen also named a “woman,” especially a “wife,” suggesting a yet original sense.

A variant form, quean, is also cited in Old English (cwene) for “woman.” While queen was elevated in rank in the language, quean was demoted: the latter went on to name a “hussy” or “prostitute.” The record documents this very important distinction – in sound, spelling, and sense – early on.

Queen and quean have widespread Indo-European cognates. Of particular interest is Greek’s γυνή (gyne), “woman,” which English employs in such words as misogyny and gynecology. The Irish bean sídhe, meanwhile, yields banshee, literally “woman of the elves.” Bean is the queen, here. The Proto-Indo-European root of concern is *gwen, “woman.” 

We see various extensions of queen come Middle English. By the late 1300s, a queen was a general term of endearment for an “honorable woman,” while a century later it stood for the “preeminent woman in a group.” As the chess piece, by 1450s, initially the weakest piece before rule changes coronated her. As the card suit, by the late 1500s. Bees, by the early 1600s; men, of course, originally assumed the queen bee was a he. Quean has long disparaged women; queen disparages a “homosexual man” by the 1890s, though anticipated earlier and perhaps influenced by quean. The Washington Post uses drama queen in 1923.

Elizabeth’s biographer Lord Hurd famously christened the Queen as “the Steadfast,” a suitable title, too, for the long and largely consistent etymology of queen.

Prince

Fans of Prince will certainly agree with the etymology of the icon’s forename. The word ultimately derives from the Latin princeps, an adjective that literally means “taking the first place,” hence “foremost” or “chief.”  Princeps joins prīmus (“first”) and a root of capere, “to take.” (Princeps then came to the English via French.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Augustus took on the unofficial title princeps when he became emperor of Rome. This was an effort to appear more republican and less regal, as princeps figured in titles such as princeps cīvitātis, “first person of the city.”  

As its Roman record anticipates, prince once wielded yet more power than it already does in modern-day English: a prince was once in fact a “king.” Evidenced in the early 1200s, a prince was more generally a “sovereign ruler” or “person of chief authority,” largely, though not exclusively, male. As the OED explains, prince named the former rulers of Wales’ various states by the end of the 1200s. This started the tradition of titling the heir-apparent of the English monarch as the “Prince of Wales” – and thereby fixing the word to the eldest son of the king or queen, as we now know the word. The OED notes that other European languages followed suit in so narrowing prince.

Other notable princes include the Prince of Peace, applied to Jesus Christ by 1375. His counterpart, the Prince of Darkness, was formerly known as the Prince of this World, which, perhaps curiously, predates Prince of Peace by at least 50 years.

Principle and principal are derived from Latin’s princeps. The former is from Latin’s principium, literally a “first part,” and developed into “fundamental belief” or “foundational basis.” Principals have been bringing naughty students into their offices in public schools since 1827 (as “college president,” much earlier); the Latin principalis, “first in importance,” explains the English term.

While it’s easy to mistake principle and principal, there’s certainly no mistaking that Prince was truly a king of pop music. (Prince and Michael Jackson will just have to hash it out in the heavens.)

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“Revamp”: A vamped up etymology

There’s been a lot of revamping of late. Twitter has revamped its timeline. Next month, students will take on a revamped SAT. And after New Hampshire, many of the presidential candidates are revamping their campaigns.

We’re familiar with re-, a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “new.” But what the heck is a vamp?

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The vamp, also known as the upper, can refer to other top and front parts of a shoe. Image from Podiatry Today.

Revamp

In short, a vamp is the front and upper part of boot or shoe. So, to revamp literally means “to patch up (some old footwear) with a new vamp.” Doesn’t sound so sexy, huh? But it’s pragmatic, cost-effective, resourceful.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites vamp in the early 1200s when the word referred to a “sock” or “stocking,” specifically the part which covered the foot and ankle. By the end of the 1500s, the verbal vamp appears: “to provide with a new vamp,” hence, “to patch up, mend, refurbish.” Before revamp appears in the early 1800s much in the modern sense we use it today, figurative cobblers would new-vamp in the mid 1600s.

Piano players and other musicians have been vamping since the end of the 1700s. The OED cites this musical term for improvisation in 1789. If you’re improvising an accompaniment, prelude, or the like, you’re sort of patching something together as you go, as the metaphor suggests.

Now, vamp, it turns out, is itself quite vamped. Via Anglo-Norman French, English ultimately fashioned vamp from the Old French avanpié, pieced together from avant (“before”) and pié (“foot”), both derived from Latin. (French uses pied today; English’s own foot is actually related.) So, an avanpié isthe front part of the foot,” fitted later for the footwear it donned. Stitch avant and pié together (compounding), cut off an a (aphesis), snip off a t (elision), form np into mp (assimilation), and voilà: it’s like a a whole new word.

Back in the Middle Ages, knights armored themselves with vambraces or vantbraces, which covered the forearm. These words join avant and bras, the French for “arm.”

Forget reinventing the wheel, er, buying a whole new pair of boots: language really knows how to vamp things up.

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