What’s in a name? That which we call a Drumpf by any other name would sound as dumbf

Mike Pham
Mike Pham
Mar 3, 2016 · 5 min read

With Donald Trump’s recent Super Tuesday wins, John Oliver’s warning to take the Republican frontrunner seriously resonates more strongly than ever. For those of you that missed Oliver’s scathing attack on the real estate titan running for president on Sunday’s (Feb 28) episode of Last Week Tonight, you should watch it — getting serious is rarely so entertaining. Go ahead, click that play button below; I’ll wait.

The episode builds to a pyrotechnic finale as Oliver reveals his weaponized meme: Make Donald Drumpf Again!, complete with its own infectious #drumpf hashtag. Trump’s greatest strength, Oliver argues, is his eponymous brand, which has become synonymous with success:

‘Trump’ does sound rich. It’s almost onomatopoeic. ‘Trump’: it’s the sound produced when a mouthy servant is slapped across the face with a wad of thousand dollar bills. ‘Trump’ is the sound of a cork popping on a couple’s champagneversary, the date renovations in the wine cellar were finally completed.

It seems names do hold some power, a realization that is not beyond Trump, who, in an unsurprising character attack, once implicated Jon Stewart’s shame over his heritage:

It is ironic, then, as Oliver notes, that the Trump name itself was changed from the more cumbersome ‘Drumpf’. This, of course, is the crux of Oliver’s weapon: decoupling Trump’s character from the brand of his success.

And ‘Drumpf’ is much less magical. It is the sound produced when a morbidly obese pigeon flies into the window of a foreclosed Old Navy. ‘Drumpf’: it’s the sound of a bottle of store-brand root beer falling off the shelf in a gas station mini-mart.

Regardless of variation in your own mental imagery (perhaps you imagined a Forever 21 instead), if you are a native English speaker, as I am, you no doubt agree that ‘Drumpf’ indeed sounds less magical than ‘Trump’. But why exactly? What exactly makes a word with no meaning sound worse than another?

The phenomenon of sound symbolism has flittered at the fringes of linguistics for decades, exemplified by phonaesthemes, fragments of words that seem to conjure particular ideas. While we have the sense that prefixes and affixes generally have consistent, predictable meanings — one does not need to know what the word wug means to know that anti-wug is in opposition to it, and that wugness is the property of being one — phonaesthemes appear to lie somewhere in between.

Consider the sequence gl-, for example, a prototypical English example appearing in the following words: glitter, glow, glimmer, glisten, glint, and so on. The meanings of these words all appear to involve light in some way, though we are generally less willing to consider gl- a full-fledged prefix on the calibre of anti-. One reason might be because there are counter-examples to the generalization that gl- is evocative of light: glow, glue, globe, to name a few. Besides gl-, other attested phonaesthemes have been attested in English: sn- is often associated with nose-related words (e.g. snout, snoot, sniff, sneeze); sl- with liquid-y low-traction meanings (e.g. slick, slip, slime, slither). And lest you think this is a peculiarity of English, sound symbolism has been observed in other languages as well, such as Swedish, where pj- has a pejorative meaning, fn- has connotations of sound, and skv- brings to mind wetness.

One explanation of the phonaesthemic phenomenon is that by looking at groups of words that share similar sound sequences — such as gl — we begin to notice clumps of words that also share similar meanings. The tighter the glomming, and the more representative that lump is of all the words containing a sound sequence, the stronger our associations of the sound sequence with the meaning of the glob. If enough words beginning with gl- also share a meaning involving light, there’s a good chance we might think that any word beginning with gl-, including novel ones we’ve never heard before, might also share this meaning — even despite occasional counter-examples.

So what of ‘Trump’? of ‘Drumpf’? According to the COCA corpus, the ten most common words beginning with tru- are the following:

  1. true
  2. truth
  3. trust
  4. truck
  5. truly
  6. trucks
  7. trunk
  8. trusted
  9. truman
  10. trump

As one might expect, a number of these words are related to each other. I personally have mostly positive connotations with words like true and truth, and neutral intuitions at best about words like truck and trunk. And, of course, trump itself is a meaningful English word, usually with reference to a card suit that outranks all others in a given game — the association with superiority being no mere accident, I’m sure.

Now consider the ten most common words beginning with dru-:

  1. drug
  2. drugs
  3. drunk
  4. drum
  5. drums
  6. drunken
  7. drummer
  8. drugstore
  9. drumming
  10. drugstores

My own mental image of a drumpf is an intoxicated oaf stumbling down a flight of stairs, an image that has some phonaesthemic support: the most common dru- words have meanings associated with illicit substances and inebriation, consistent with every drummer I have ever met. Though Drumpf may be a meaningless word outside of being a name, its similarities to other words that share its phonological characteristics provide us with some guideposts for its negative connotations.

But there is one more linguistic component to this retronymic weapon: the final -pf in Drumpf (and possibly also the m). Remember that Oliver is turning Trump’s xenophobic commentary back on him. As any native English speaker implicitly knows, pf is simply not an acceptable English cluster of sounds at the end of a syllable, or really anywhere within the same syllable — or more accurately, we can pronounce it, but it sure doesn’t sound like sweet apple pie.

In the same COCA corpus, the most common words ending with -pf are either words loaned from other languages, or abbreviations:

  1. schwarzkopf
  2. spf
  3. knopf
  4. pf
  5. kampf
  6. steinkampf
  7. weiskopf
  8. hpf
  9. rpf
  10. fahrenkopf

Most of these words are from German, and with kampf at number 5 on the list, not even happy stereotypes of lederhosen-clad, Oktoberfest German. The last image a presidential candidate wants to evoke is that of a melanoma-wary Hitler, only narrowly nosing in front of an actual image of Trump himself.

Oliver’s weapon for us is a two-pronged one (a pitchfork?): by making Donald Drumpf again, we paint him as a wasted bumbling band buffoon trying to pick up underage girls like it’s the year 1980-sexist, and shine the spotlight onto the gleaming bald spot of his own xenophobic hypocrisy.