Ideas

the word

Why Donald Trump trumps Donald Drumpf

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Donald Trump — tycoon, TV personality, and Republican front-runner — has been long preoccupied with putting his name on things. A Sept. 3 profile in Bloomberg Businessweek described the teenage Trump attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge back in 1964. When no one mentioned the designer’s name at the ceremony, Trump learned his lesson: “I realized then and there something I would never forget,” he told The New York Times in 1980 regarding the incident. “I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.”

From then on, Trump has placed his name front and center. Thanks to his July financial disclosure, we can tally the results of that effort. Of his current holdings — 515 entities — more than half bear his name, including Trump Ice (bottled water), Trump Classic Cars, Trump Drinks Israel, Trump Education, Trump Identity, Trump Marks Fine Foods, Trump Marks Mattress (recently dropped by Serta), Trump Marks Mortgage Corp., Trump Follies, and Trump on the Ocean. We hear Trump so often as a brand that we’re almost desensitized to it, the name or the word. But its highly ambivalent history and connotations spill over into how we understand Trump the person, too — and may even have something to do with how Trump got so very Trumpian.

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Trump’s German wine-growing ancestors were named Drumpf, according to journalist Gwenda Blair’s book “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built An Empire.” The family changed the name at some point during the Thirty Years’ War. America was first introduced to the Trump brand, however, by Donald’s father, Fred C. Trump, who named his real estate company and supermarket chains “Trump” and drove a navy blue Cadillac with “FCT” license plates.

Donald, though, took name-branding to a 5-foot-tall, shiny-brass-letters, next level. “I put my name on something when I really feel that it is going to be right,” Trump said at a 1989 news conference to announce the launch of Trump Shuttle. (Of course, Trump Shuttle was one of Trump’s great flops, along with Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump: The Game, and Trump University, embroiled in multiple fraud lawsuits and now called the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.)

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We’ve become so accustomed to the Trump brand that it’s hard to imagine The Donald by any other name. Yet, had he been born Donald Drumpf, his path might have been quite different. Trump, according to Laurel Sutton at the Catchword naming agency, is an “unusual name, . . . a single-word name, which sounds very grounded, very firm. It’s not a multisyllabic Romance-type name,” which makes it more “masculine-sounding.”

“There’s something about the ‘p’ at the end, the plosive,” added naming and branding expert Nancy Friedman, whereas Drumpf sounds “almost comical in English. That ‘pf’ combination is tough for English speakers and ‘dr’ doesn’t have the same effect on the ear as ‘tr.’ It’s not as sharp, it sounds like ‘drug’ and ‘drop.’ ”

That’s not merely an aesthetic problem if you’re trying to sell luxury hotels — or yourself as a presidential candidate. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people with easily pronounceable names were judged to be more likeable.

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How it sounds isn’t the only aspect of naming that matters when judging a person. The meaning is important, too, notes one of the study’s coauthors, Adam Alter, a psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “We’re sensitive to associations — positive and negative — between any two concept,” Alter said. The effect “is probably small, but it’s automatic and we’re unlikely to be able to avoid it completely when we consider people by their names.”

The name Trump carries a range of strong associations, veering on being an aptonym — a name whose definition is uniquely appropriate for someone’s profession, like urologist (specializing in vasectomies) Dr. Richard Chopp or the late Filipino Cardinal (Jaime) Sin. As Alter points out, the word “implies victory and dominance.” The “trump card” in bridge and other card games is a card of a suit that temporarily ranks above any other and is derived from “triumph,” a name for an early card game. Underneath that confident note there’s also the golden blare of “trumpet”: “Tharfor trump vp, blaw furth thyne eloquens,” as the OED quotes a 16th-century translation of the Aeneid. Trump himself may derive confidence from these strong, positive meanings to trumpet forth his own eloquence, Alter suggests — although he added, “Of course the effect of [Trump’s] name is likely to be far weaker than the effects of his inherited wealth and self-assured personality.”

Then again, the verb “trump” also once meant to fabricate or deceive (from French “tromper”). The phrase “to trump up” still means “forge” or “invent,” as in “trumped-up charges” or the many, many headlines punning on “Trumped-up rhetoric” or “Trumped-up politics.” If last week’s Washington Post report suggesting that Trump is a compulsive golf cheat is any measure — “the worst celebrity golf cheat,” according to Alice Cooper — this definition of “trump” may be as essential to Trump’s identity as the other.

Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.

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