No visible means of support.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the origin of the phrase “trumped up,” used to describe false and/or frivolous accusations of a crime or impropriety, as in “trumped up charges”? — Allan Pratt.

Hmm. You’re all expecting me to lead off with an energetic swipe at The Donald and his Remarkable Do, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going down that path. This is a dignified, scholarly column. Besides, nothing I could possibly come up with could match the brilliance of the appellation the late and lamented Spy magazine routinely applied to El Trump, “Short-fingered vulgarian.” On the other hand, “Paris Hilton with bulldozers” has a nice ring to it.

Onward. There are two main senses of “trump” as both a noun and a verb in English. The older verb “to trump,” first appearing in the 14th century, means simply “to blow or sound a trumpet” (or, as we also say in fuller form, “to trumpet”). The “trumpet” itself takes its name from a Germanic root that was probably echoic, i.e., intended to imitate the actual sound of a trumpet. The Italian form, “tromba,” begat “trombone” (meaning literally “large trumpet”), which passed into English in the early 18th century, making high-school marching bands possible.

The other “trump” comes from card games, specifically the use of “trump” to mean a card which ranks above the others in play, i.e., a winning card. This “trump,” which first appeared in English in the 16th century, is simply a corruption of the word “triumph,” and the word seems to have been taken from a now-obsolete card game called “triumph” or (don’t ask me to explain this) “ruff.”

The “winning card” sense of “trump” spawned a range of figurative uses, including the verb “to trump” meaning “to beat” or “to frustrate by impeding” (“Bob found that his co-worker’s access to Yankees tickets trumped his own diligence in the eyes of his boss”). By the 17th century, “to trump” was being used to mean “to bring forward, to allege” with the sense of concocting an allegation in order to gain an advantage over an adversary. From there it was a short jump to “trump” meaning “to forge, fabricate or invent,” and the “trumped-up charge” was born.

While the evolution of “trump” in this sense sounds straightforward, there is a small loose end I must mention. There was a now-obsolete (last seen in the early 17th century) English verb “to trump” meaning “to deceive or cheat,” derived from the Old French “tromper” of the same meaning. Oddly enough, this word does not seem to have been derived from any form of “triumph,” but may actually be related to “trumpet” in some way.

3 comments on this post.
  1. R. H r:

    I am so relieved to learn this origin.

  2. Richard Comaish:

    Are the different ‘trumps’ cognate? There is a palpable semantic connection, triumphant timbres like the trumpet often tricking one into overlooking modest truth.

  3. Dennis Sanner:

    I am surprised this does not relate to the Bridge card game with its trump suit and overblown bidding.

    That it relates to trumpeting is interesting. Thank you.

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