Overview:

Words change. Words evolve. And sometimes, through no fault of its own, a perfectly good word is damned right out of our mouths.

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An article co-written by Jonathan MS Pearce and Bert Bigelow

Fifty years ago, I was an avid bridge player, and a member of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). I never made it to Life Master, but I accumulated enough Master Points to qualify for lesser titles like Junior Master.

Here is a brief definition of the game:

Contract bridge, or simply bridge, is a trick-taking card game using a standard 52-card deck. In its basic format, it is played by four players in two competing partnerships, with partners sitting opposite each other around a table.

“Trick taking?” Each player plays a card, and the highest ranking card wins the resulting “trick.” Why is it called a trick? The word has many other meanings, including the tricks that a magician performs. When a prostitute provides service to a customer, it’s called “turning a trick.” Indeed, in the UK, “How’s tricks?” is a common way of saying “How are things?”, which many say has its basis in prostitution:

Usage became prevalent in the 1930s, especially among pimps who’d ask the prostitutes in their employ how business was going (‘turning tricks’), but the phrase was soon adopted by all the cool kids with greased-back hair and leather jackets…

And, of course, there are the tricks that trick-or-treaters threaten to do on Halloween. Then there is “hat trick” denoting 3 goals or points in a game, particularly soccer:

The phrase came from cricket, and was used when a bowler took three wickets from three consecutive balls. The club would give the bowler a hat to celebrate this achievement

How can one little five-letter word have such disparate meanings?

Back to the card game: There are rules about tricks. The first card played defines the suit for the trick, and the other players must “follow suit” (itself now an idiom). They must play a card of that suit if they have any. If not, they can play any other card, but it has no value in winning the trick, unless the current hand being played is a suit contract. A suit contract might be “4 Spades,” meaning the winners of the bidding auction must win ten of the thirteen tricks. In this case, Spades are “trump,” and trump cards rank higher than any other cards in winning tricks. Trumping a trick overrules the existing hierarchy of the 13 cards in a suit, ranging from the lowly deuce (2) through the 10, Jack Queen, King, and Ace.

The term trump has gained a wider meaning in the common vernacular. If you trump an opponent’s argument, you defeat him with superior logic, facts, showmanship, or wizardry. You shut him down.

This brings us, of course, to the most recent connotation of the word as it applies to a certain individual whose ancestors Anglicized their original German name, Drumpf, into Trump. Donald Trump was also bisected by the initial “J” to give added gravitas, like FDR or JFK. Or Elmer J. Fudd. In the past, I often used the word in its contemporary sense, but I can no longer do that. It gives me indigestion to even say it.

Perhaps aptly, children in the UK use trump to refer to excess gaseous output from the posterior (and perhaps in usage in the UK since the early 15th century). Just hot air, really.

Another word that has lost its original meaning is genius.  Formerly, it referred to an individual with really exceptional intellect or creativity like Einstein or Shakespeare. Now, anybody who makes a useful suggestion or a perceptive comment is awarded the title. Trump once called himself a “very stable genius,” an incalculable misuse of those words. He has demonstrated through his actions that he is neither stable nor above even average intelligence in understanding complex issues. But he does have the ability to inspire and legitimize the coarser aspects of American society, especially bigotry in its various forms such as racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. His crowning achievement was the incitement of a riot attacking the center of our government. No other President in our history has demonstrated the capability to do this, and it could be argued that he deserves to be awarded the title of “evil genius.”

In the past, I often used the word in its contemporary sense, but I can no longer do that. It gives me indigestion to even say it.

Words change their meaning and while some people dislike this, others embrace the change. Dictionaries these days are generally descriptive and not prescriptive, meaning that they describe how language is used in society and don’t dictate how language should be used. “Awful” and “awesome” have evolved in completely different ways, for instance.

A great example of this evolution is the word literally, which has now become a contranym, a word with two opposite meanings.

An apology, in terms of both apologizing for a mistake and Christian apologetics, is a statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one. Cleave can mean both to adhere to and to separate. Forensic used to mean pertaining to or suitable for courts of law. (By the way, the Online Etymology Dictionary is a fascinating place to lose yourself for many hours.)

But literally

“Jones was literally on fire on the football pitch.”

No. No, they weren’t. They were metaphorically on fire, but not literally. Literally, in many definitions, now includes the idea of exaggeration: it can mean both literally and metaphorically!

Words change.

But words can get ruined. Trump is arguably one of them. And it’s a name. Names have a rich history in the teaching of being ruined.

“Oh, Jess, you’re pregnant,” goes the conversation in the staff room. “have you thought of any names yet?”

“Yeah, we’re thinking of Perry or Dexter,” says Jess.

The other teachers shake their heads in disapproval.

“No way. Do you remember Dexter Hamworthy? He was a right little ****…”

“And Perry Charlton? Goodness, what a horror. That name has been ruined forever!”

For some people, words have been ruined. Maybe it’s “Twitter” or “idol,” or perhaps “sick” or “epic.”

Trump, of course, is a word only ruined if you have a visceral distaste for the man such that “Trump” has trumped “trump.” It could be that the best course of action is to follow suit of English schoolkids, and properly co-opt the word “trump” to refer to passing wind. If anything will annoy the man, that will.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...