a linguistic investigation into ‘trumpery’



– attractive articles of little value or use
– practices or beliefs that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value or worth




The noun trumpery, first recorded in the mid-15th century, is from the French noun tromperie, which means deceptiontrickery. This was one of the original meanings in English, and as late as 1847, in Tancred: or, The New Crusade, the British statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) wrote, about Protestant proselytism in Ireland, of “Irish Papists denouncing the whole movement as fraud and trumpery”.

The French noun tromperie is from the verb tromperto deceive, whose literal but obsolete sense was to blow a trumpet. In French, tromper quelque chose, literally to trump something, meant to announce something to the sound of a trumpet, and tromper quelqu’unto trump someone, meant to announce (something) to someone to the sound of a trumpet. The figurative sense to deceive of tromper is apparently based on the fact that such announcements could be false.

This figurative sense can be compared to that of the verb piper, which now means to mark (cards), to load (dice), but originally meant, of a bird, to peep. The metaphorical use of piper is from fowling, as hunters would lure the wildfowl by imitating their peeping.

Derived from French tromper, the English verb to trump originally meant to blow a trumpet, later also to give forth a trumpet-like sound, hence to break wind audibly.

The French verb tromper is in turn from the feminine noun trompe, meaning a trumpet, derived from an unattested Frankish trumba, related to Old High German trumbatrumpa, of imitative origin. From French trompe, the English noun trump is now obsolete in the senses of a trumpet and a trumpet blast, except in the expression the last trump, denoting the trumpet blast that will wake the dead on Judgement Day. The English noun trump in the sense of a brass musical instrument has been replaced by trumpet, from French trompette, diminutive of trompe.


The English noun trump in the sense of a winning card, that is, a playing card of a suit that ranks higher than any other suit, is a variant of triumph, once used in card games in the same sense; trump and triumph also denoted an obsolete card game. The French and Italian masculine nouns triomphe and trionfo were used in the same senses. In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave thus defined triomphe:

The Card-game called Ruffe*, or Trump also, the Ruffe, or Trump at it.

And John Florio thus defined trionfo in Queen Anna’s New World of Words, Or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues (1611):

A triumph, a ioy or gladnesse, that is, a solemne pomp or shew at the returne of a Captaine for some victory or conquest gotten. Also a trump at cardes, or the play called trump or ruffe.

(* The English noun ruff in the senses of a card game and the trump in this game is perhaps from Italian ronfa, which was defined by Florio as “a game at cardes called Ruffe” and is probably a shortening of trionfo.)

The first known user of trump in the sense of a winning card was the English Protestant prelate and martyr Hugh Latimer (circa 1485-1555) in the first of his Sermons on the Card (around 1529):

We must say to ourselves, “What requireth Christ of a christian man?” Now turn up your trump, your heart (hearts is trump, as I said before), and cast your trump, your heart, on this card; and upon this card you shall learn what Christ requireth of a christian man.

In Modern French, triomphe in the sense of a winning card has been superseded by the masculine noun atout, literally to all, either because trumps are superior to all the other cards or more probably from the phrase jouer atoutto play to (winall.

The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) played on the double sense of triumph in The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra (around 1608). Thinking that he has lost Cleopatra’s heart, Antony says to his friend Eros that she has packed her cards with Caesar’s cards:

(Folio 1, 1623)
Shee Eros has
Packt Cards with Cæsars, and false plaid my Glory
Vnto an Enemies triumph.

From the noun trump, the verb to trump, meaning to play a trump on a card of another suit, corresponds to French triompher and Italian trionfare, thus respectively defined by Cotgrave and Florio in the above-mentioned dictionaries:

– To triumph; or greatly reioyce; also, to trumpe at Cards.
– To triumph, to get the conquest. Also to reioyce greatly. Also to ruffe or trumpe at cards.

These French and Italian verbs are no longer used to mean to trump.

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