This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, pull language out of its hay-lined hibernation box, because it’s time to wake up for a new year of Allusionists! Three years done, four hundred to go.
Today’s show contains references to the current president of the USA. And I know a lot of you listen to this show for a little escape from politics, and news, so I just want to reassure you that there is not much modern politics in the episode, it’s mostly about history and interesting word facts, so, do persist.
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On with the show.
It's a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. And in that year, he's caused a lot of changes in the job of constitutional law professor Elizabeth Joh. For instance:
ELIZABETH JOH: It turned out that every single time I taught con law or taught a particular class, I had to go and check Twitter, because if I didn't, there was a good chance that I had probably missed something that President Trump said. And so it became a kind of additional part of my class preparation to say, “Here is something that the president tweeted." I had to immediately screenshot it, and then we would spend a few minutes in class dissecting the president's tweets, what they meant, what they meant for constitutional law; a task I could never have imagined a decade ago.
HZ: And there’s another issue she could not have imagined a decade ago, a particular linguistic issue:
ELIZABETH JOH: Yeah. One of the things that often comes up, particularly in a constitutional law course, is the idea of what happens when you have two laws that seemed to address the same topic - they can't be complied with simultaneously, one has to give. Well, for most of my teaching career, I've used a particular verb: I say, “Well, class, when we have this kind of situation, according to these legal rules, one trumps the other." And until our particular and current president took office, this was something I said unthinkingly. And then after January of 2017, I realized that, the very first time I said, "Well, as you know, class, this means that one law trumps the other." The class erupted in titters and I thought, "Oh my goodness, this has actually happened. Trump has actually ruined the verb that has been so useful to me pedagogically all these years". And so it's actually taken on so much meaning, much more meaning than I ever intended. Trump has changed not just the content of my teaching constitutional law, but the way I talk about it. And so now I am so self-conscious about 'trump' as a verb - which I never intended to mean to refer to the president - that I actually have stopped using it. And so I've turned to these very awkward phrases such as "when one law supersedes of course the other". That's not very colloquial.
HZ: It's not as fun.
ELIZABETH JOH: It's awful. And so he's ruined it.
HZ: Elizabeth could choose from several synonyms ‘trump’ as a verb in this sense. To best, to outdo, to surmount, to top.
But this isn’t the point. The point is: this isn’t normal, linguistically and politically, for there to be a word that has existed for a while, then along comes an American president whose name is that word and overtakes the prior senses of the word. When Abraham Lincoln came on the scene, the city of Lincoln in England didn’t reevaluate the name it has had in some form for 2000 years. River crossings remain unassociated with Gerald Ford. And Bill Clinton’s face was not on all the cards sold in the 683 branches of Clinton Cards that were open during his presidency.
But Trump - could we be seeing an inverted eponym, the extant non-eponym meaning of the word becoming overshadowed by the person?
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: I'm trying to think of any examples of that, and I can't pin one down.
HZ: And if anyone could think of one, it would be this chap.
HZ: Such as eponyms - which, as you know from previous episodes of this show, are words derived from a person’s name. There are many examples of political eponyms, where a politician’s name has entered the lexicon.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Probably the most famous one is ‘silhouette’, which is Etienne de Silhouette, this you get in my fantastic French accent was it was a French finance minister who introduced really new terrible austerity measures out of the Seven Years War in France, mid 1700s. And so because these things were so austere, his name became attached to anything that was done inexpensively or cheaply. And because silhouette portraits are just colorless outlines rather than full color portraits, they became known as silhouettes, just because they were so popular at the same time that he was implementing these measures his name very negatively ended up being attached to them.
HZ: It's interesting because you'd never think to look at a silhouette that it was something negative. But something like a guillotine, that's a bit more obviously a diss.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Yes. Yeah. That was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. He has this reputation, I think just because of his attachment to the word, of being a kind of Robespierre sort of character, really bloodthirsty, heads will roll type of character. And he was nothing of the sort: he was a physician; he opposed the death penalty; he was a member of the French National Assembly; an early proponent of vaccination. He's got all of these positives going for him; but because, as a member of the National Assembly he said that if capital punishment was going to be used, then it should be done in the most humane way possible, and that meant the quickest way possible. So he saw this idea for a mechanism of a falling angled blade, and decided that that would be the best way to do it, put the idea in front of the National Assembly, and it ended up having his name. The other thing is that at the time, the guillotine was also known as the 'louisette', because it was invented by someone called Antoine Louis; so at the time it was it was known by its maker's name, but it's Guillotin's name that's ended up being attached to it, and it's completely changed his reputation in history; I think a lot of people expect it to be a completely different character to who he was just because of his advocacy for this thing.
HZ: So it's unfortunate that for someone who was relatively kind and progressive, his relatively kind in progressive form of ending someone's life has tainted his overall remembrance.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Yeah, yeah; it's completely changed his reputation.
HZ: That’s capital punishment for you.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: It hasn't got a single silver lining.
HZ: Might as well say now that many of the political eponyms are not flattering. For instance 'quisling', a traitor who helps enemy forces.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: The really interesting thing about 'quisling' is how quickly it caught on over and above a lot of other eponyms. Because it was 1940 when Norway fell to Nazi Germany and the Norwegian government was moved out of the capital and the royal family was moved out of the capital, so there was this real vacuum of power. And Vidkun Quisling wasn't even, I don't think, that high up the tree: he was opposition leader, but I don't think his party had much of a following. But he stepped up and essentially staged a coup d'etat, announced on national radio what he was doing, and ended up collaborating with the Nazis for the next four, five years. But within five days of that radio broadcast, there's a record of the Times talking about searching out quislings in other governments around Europe. Within a week his name had already been picked up on by journalists in Britain. People were being called "quislingists" and "quislingites" and you are being "quisling-hearted" and "quisling-brained" if you are acting vaguely traitorously. The story had had that much of an impact.
HZ: There was even a verb form, ‘to quisle’, which didn’t last long. Which is a shame, because it’s fun to say.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: I think as well, there must be part of this comes from the fact that people just like words beginning with Q. That sounds like such a flippant point, but I think the more curious a name is, the more people like to pick up on it. I think if he'd been called Johnson or Johansen I don't think it would have been quite so quickly picked up, but the fact that it's such an unusual name - to English speakers at least - I think it probably has part at least partly to do with his success as an eponym.
HZ: Another successful eponym: chauvinism, which entered English sometime in the 19th century, albeit to mean something a bit different to its now dominant sense of sexism, which took hold around the middle of the 20th century.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Chauvinism is a great story actually, because one thing that doesn't tend to happen with eponyms very often is that the meaning changes. Because eponyms comes from people's lives, they tend to be fairly stuck in the language because they'll be associated with one thing that this person's discovered or invented or whatever it might be. But chauvinism is interesting because it's completely changed. It was originally a really overexaggerated sort of blind patriotism, a sort of real nationalism, and it was named after Nicolas Chauvin who was supposedly a soldier in Napoleon's army.
HZ: And supposedly fanatically devoted to Napoleon, even after he was badly injured 17 times fighting in the army, and even after Napoleon abdicated and his ideologies were mud in France. Little is actually known about Nicolas Chauvin - there isn’t even solid proof that he really existed, he may have been an apocryphal character. But his name certainly managed to stick.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Originally, chauvinism was just blind patriotism. But in terms of a kind of unquestionable, unfair, very one sided advocacy for one point of view over somebody else's, the word started to develop and started to broaden so that you can have chauvinism for all kinds of different subjects. Especially now, in terms of gender, but it's drifted miles and miles and miles away from the original meaning which was much more narrow than it is today. So yeah if Chauvin did exist or not - I'd like to think he did - I don't think he'd be very happy to see his name attached to what it's attached to today.
HZ: Maybe he'd think "I do discriminate against one of the genders - brilliant, happy to be that label."
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: He'd be there, thumbs up.
HZ: We’ve learned before that, while eponyms are sometimes honorific, other times, they really are not. And if it’s your name being eponymized - tough - you can’t control what happens with your eponym’s meaning - and the word itself might depart from your name quite significantly. As in the case of ‘gerrymander’.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: I've blogged about gerrymandering before and I always get comments saying that people thought the guy's name was Gerry Mander.
HZ: Like 'Gerald Mander'?
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Or as if he was a Pokemon character like Charmander. His name actually was Elbridge Gerry with a hard G. So it's taken a step even further away from his original name. But he was governor of Massachusetts, and he signed the bill that redrew the electoral districts in Massachusetts so that they better suited his party to give them a better chance of winning. And the ploy worked: his party won. And what ended up happening was that the map of these new districts was used in the press. And I think it's about a dozen of the districts on the left hand side looked vaguely like a salamander.
HZ: Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: It actually looks a bit more like a sort of vulture with webbed feet, it looks nothing like - it’s the most unsalamanderlike salamander you'll ever see, but that's just my understanding of amphibians. They drew this picture around it and said that it was the the 'gerrymander' that was creeping its way across Massachusetts and that's where the word comes from. It was Elbridge Gerry's salamander, effectively. So it's an eponym that's two steps away from the original name: it's pronounced differently, because we have more words - certainly more familiar words - in English that begin with a G and an E that have a soft g, like 'germ' and 'George' and all the rest of it. So it's taken a step away from his name, and then it's had a suffix attached to it; so it's a sort of portmanteau eponym almost, it's a blended eponym.
HZ: A portmanteau eponym! Portmantym? Eponymanteau?
There is a presidential eponym, coined in 1872, but you don’t find it used much any more: grantism.
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: Grantism is nepotism, really really extreme nepotism. And it comes from Ulysses S. Grant, who hired about 30 members of his family into his administration, including cousins, his father was in there, 3 of his brothers in law, he just went through his family tree when he was picking his staff. So grantism, for the time that he was in power, was real nepotism.
HZ: Bear in mind the term was coined by one of Grant’s enemies, Senator Charles Sumner. That’s some trolling by eponym there.
‘Trump’ is a name that lends itself to becoming an eponym. It’s one punchy syllable, so it would work in portmanteaus. (‘Trumpmander’!) But it might be a problem that the word ‘trump’ already has several meanings. There’s the aforementioned verb, to outdo or best, which comes from the noun ‘trump’, the term from card games for a card that outranks the other cards. That has been on record since the 1520s, and is an altered version of the word ‘triumph’, because there was a card game then named Triumph, which was a bit like Whist; and you can easily get that sense of one thing triumphing over another - trumping another. And when something ‘comes up trumps’, that’s a successful outcome, so there’s that sense of victory in the word too. Then there’s another verb ‘to trump’, which meant to fabricate: that was from the Old French verb ‘tromper’, to deceive. And the associated 15th century noun ‘trumpery’ -
PAUL ANTHONY JONES: - which was falsehood or empty talk or something of less value than it seems.
HZ: And then there’s the instrument, the trump, a kind of medieval trumpet, which gave us yet another verb sense of ‘trump’, which doesn't seem to be in currency in the US but is certainly used in Britain: to fart.
ELIZABETH JOH: No kidding.
HZ: I think probably in imitation of air blowing through a tube, in the instrument sense of the word. It's pretty sophisticated stuff, Elizabeth. I feel almost ashamed to have enlightened you of this word…. Do you have any predictions for what, in 80 or 300 years time, an eponym sense of 'trump' might mean?
ELIZABETH JOH: Well if things stand as they are, I'd expect that 'trump' will come to mean something of the qualities we associate with the man himself: a lot of showmanship; a taste for attention grabbing, but sometimes not grounded in as much substance as we'd like - or sometimes not at all - and really a kind of passionate sense of combat for its own sake; and that may be one of the long-lasting legacies he gives to this particular word.
HZ: Actually, as you were saying that, I was thinking Trump the man embodies a lot of the qualities of the different definitions of ‘trump’, because there's triumph, and besting other things, and also loud blasts of hot air.
ELIZABETH JOH: So in fact maybe what we've discovered is that 'trump' the word always embodied what he was anyway. So that was enlightening.
HZ: You can hear Elizabeth Joh discuss constitutional law and its latest implications in What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, the podcast she cohosts with eponym fan Roman Mars. In fact it was Roman who piped up saying that Elizabeth had run into this issue with the verb ‘trump’, and I didn’t realise till later that he was sneaking an eponymisode in only partway through the annual cycle!
ROMAN MARS: And it’s not even my birthday.
HZ: Hear What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law at trumpconlaw.com. Paul Anthony Jones writes about obscure words and etymology under the name Haggard Hawks: he has several books out, and he has a twitter feed and newsletter that you people will love. Find all the ways to follow him online and devour his work at haggardhawks.com.
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