Brow Beat

How Donald Ruined the Word Trump

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

My mother lives in a South Florida retirement community, where the bridge season is in full swing. Unfortunately, she reports that lately the games are taking an eternity to complete. Seems the bidding and gathering of tricks continually grinds to a halt whenever the new president’s name is uttered.

This is a problem that is muddying social situations worldwide, but it’s particularly vexing in bridge quartets, as the word trump is so endemic to the game. In bridge parlance, the trump suit, should there be one, will rank above the others in any particular hand. Unfortunately, it also means that my mother and her poor friends, who merely seek a few hours’ diversion, inevitably have their oasis sullied and their thoughts jolted back to the ever-worsening horrors of real life.

My mother reports that at the mention of the trump suit, there is much muttering of epithets, with derangedmadman, and asshole being the most popular. My mom usually plays thrice a week, meaning there are always ample fresh outrages to catch up with. This usually results in delays from a couple of minutes of chuckling (Trump staffers are unable to turn on the White House lights) to nearly half an hour (immigration ban, Supreme Court nominee), depending on the seriousness of the offense.

For example, here’s how the contract bridge auction process sounds in 2017.

N: “One heart.”

E: “Two spades.”

S: “Pass.”

W: “Three No Trump.”

ALL: “I wish!!!”

According to mom, the real competition now comes from trying to get in the punchline first.

I can sympathize. Since the election of the heir to the Drumpf family fortune, using trump in any of its forms, noun or verb, has made me wince. Even otherwise positive usages are tainted. For example, I came across a stray reference in the local paper the other day noting participation in a school fundraiser had “trumped all other recent civic activities.” A nice moment for our community turned sour by an unfortunate grammatical choice.

Be it card play, an overriding factor, or even the old-timey use as a shorthand for trumpet, the word trump simply cannot escape its newly political overtones. (Trump is fortunate he didn’t build his career in the U.K., where trump is juvenile slang for passing gas.) Whatever else he accomplishes, for better or worse, Trump has had an impact the English language itself.

The associative conundrum even extends to the newly common usage of his middle initial when referring to him. You know, Donald J. Trump. The middle name/initial is a key part of the presidential mystique, bestowing a certain dignity and separating the man in the oval office from the rest of us schlubs, who are content with mere Christian and surnames. JFK and FDR were just Jack and Frank before being elected to the highest office in the land.

Donald John Trump doesn’t roll smoothly off the tongue—the repeat single syllable at the end doesn’t scan, as I suspect the entertainer in chief understands. Hence, “Donald J. Trump,” which ever-so-slightly softens the ballpeen bluntness of that last name. The initial also serves to grant a modicum of authority. “Donald Trump” is the reality TV huckster and failed casino magnate. “Donald J. Trump” is the president.

This is ironic, for the use of J. as a middle initial has a long, quite specific history of use in ridiculous cartoon characters. Two, in particular, have now been soiled by proxy. Perhaps the most immediate figure to come to mind in this capacity is Elmer J. Fudd, the endlessly unsuccessful hunter of wabbits and daffy ducks. He is also “Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht,” which is doubtless how Trump introduces himself to people (certainly women), with the difference being he overestimates his net worth to 10 digits instead of seven.

Then there is the bloated, blustery, bumbling, buffoonish Trump, perfectly encapsulated by another cartoon antihero: Homer J. Simpson. Homer is often depicted to be at war with his own brain (“Shut up, brain, or I’ll stab you with a Q-Tip!”), which couldn’t be a better metaphor for Trump’s early foray into governance. Homer is crude, quick to anger, easily suggestible, a questionable speller, possesses an unusual skin tone, has a controversial set of fingers—stop me if any of this rings a bell. On the other hand, the Simpson paterfamilias is lovable and sympathetic despite himself and usually winds up doing the right thing, if often by accident. And he’s as hilarious a character as has ever appeared on television.

Alas, none of these positive characteristics have yet to emerge from the Oval Office.

Sad as it is, I can’t think of either Elmer J. or Homer J. these days without drifting over to Donald J. It may be not be at the top of his long and growing list of crimes against humanity, but ruining Looney Tunes and The Simpsons is in and of itself an impeachable offense.