A Voyage Into Sound Symbolism by George Lakoff
As strange as it may sound, the sound symbolism of a name has become an unnamed central issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. As a cognitive linguist, my job is to study the issue and, at the very least, to name it.
Perhaps the best-known discussion of naming occurs in Juliet’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Here is Juliet, proclaiming that all that divides her from Romeo are their family names.
Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Shakespeare here was writing about love, not profit or politics. Donald Trump’s father changed the family name from Drumpf to Trump. It was a name change worth billions. Herr Drumpf understood the power of naming, as has his son, who renames his rivals: Lyin’ Ted, Little Mario, Crooked Hillary.
Trump has made his fortune by marketing and marketing his name. He slaps his name in large bold letters on Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, and so on. He has even managed to get his name on property he doesn’t own! http://politicschatter.com/politics-talk/slideshow/trump-owns-properties-name/
The name Trump is his brand, his product; he sells his name. When he seeks financial backing for a project, he insists that he be paid very well for the use of his name, even if his name is used just to get investors or bank loans. The condition is that he gets paid for the use of his name, even if the project fails and goes into bankruptcy. Time and again, his companies have gone bankrupt; but though others — builders, employees, investors — lose money, Trump is always paid for the use of his name.
What it is about the name “Trump” that sells, and would it sell if it were changed a bit?
There is a subfield of cognitive linguistics that studies sound symbolism, where there is pattern in a language linking sound structure of a group of words to what is called an ‘embodied conceptual schema’ that characterizes a significant part of word meaning, though by no means all word meaning. To give you a feel for sound symbolism, consider words ending in –ip: drip, clip, snip, rip, dip, sip, whip. There is a pattern here: the meanings all involve a short path to a sudden stop. This is what the mouth is doing; there is short path of breath to a sudden stop. The pattern is called an “image schema.” It provides structure to a meaning, without filling out the whole meaning. Moreover, the pattern does not cover all –ip words or all short paths to a sudden stop. It is simply a pattern that fits a significant number of important cases.
The –ip sound is called a rhyme, which occurs at the end of a syllable. Sound symbolism also occurs at the beginning, or “onset”, of a syllable. Consider words beginning in cl-: clap, cling, clasp, clump, clench, cleat, cloak, closed, club, cluster, … . The pattern involves things coming together: either the part of the hand in clench, the two parts of a clasp, the two hands as in clap, the members of a club, the trees or plants in a clump or cluster, the cloak what comers together with the shoulders it is attached to. When the blades of scissors come together in a short path to a sudden stop, there is a cl+ip, as in clip. English has dozens of such sound-symbolic patterns, as observed by Richard Rhodes and John Lawler in their classic paper “Athematic Metaphor” (Chicago Linguistics Society, 1981; .
This brings us to tr- words. When you say tr- in English, your tongue starts out with the tip just in back of the teeth and pressed along the top of the mouth to pronounce an r. Then a vowel follows and the mouth is forcefully opened, moving with the vowel in one direction or another. In short, there is forceful press and a forceful release. Not surprisingly, English has a very common sound-symbolic pattern in which the initial cluster, the onset tr- expresses Force, with a forceful tension followed by a forceful motion.
There are many kinds of forces involved in many kinds of forceful actions and experiences. As a result the tr- words span a wide range of meanings in which an initial force is part of the meaning of the word. Start with tr+ip, trip — a verb expressing a force resulting in a short path to a sudden end: you can trip on something that exerts force on you sending you moving to a quick sudden stop, or you can trip someone else sending them moving to a quick sudden stop.
Then there is try, in which someone exerts force to achieve some purpose. Trap can be a forceful action by one or more people to retain someone, or can refer to a mechanism that exerts force to restrain someone. A truss holds an injured body part in place by force. And to trim or truncate something is to forcefully cut it shorter. To forcefully start something is to trigger it. A tremor is a forceful movement of the earth, as in an earth quake. A trench is a long hole dug with force. A trumpet is a musical instrument that takes force to play and as a result of the force makes a loud sound.
Then there are machines that exert force to move things: a truck, a tractor, a train, a trolley, a tram, and forms of transit. Motion across some area usually requires force to carry out the notion. Trans- means across and in the right word, it can express forceful motion across or forceful change, as in transmit, transfer, transpose, and transfigure.
The forceful motion of a train moves along a track, while heavy steps on wet ground can leave tracks. The forceful motion of people over a landscape creates a trail that others can move along. Forceful motion on a landscape over a distance can be a trek. Forceful walking is treading, with the past tense trod. And the tires of a wheeled vehicle need tread to forcefully grip the road. To forcefully step repeatedly on something to destroy it is to trample it. And an object to jump up and down on forcefully and repeatedly for the sake of exercise or play is a trampoline. The successful use of force to achieve something significant is a triumph. A problem that can be solved by forceful action is tractable. A trend is an event sequence understood as exerting a force in itself to continue motion in the same direction in the future.
Some forceful events exert harm, for example, a trauma, a tragedy. The very thought of them can exert the force to make you tremble. A trial is an event you undergo that can seriously harm you and that takes forceful action or resilience on your part to avoid that harm. A tribulation is a harmful effect you undergo when you experience a trying experience.
You can sense the force of the tr- sound in a word if you try to rename an object or experience. There is a reason why a tractor is not called a yiss! Or why a trauma or a tragedy is not called a “wug.” In studying sound symbolism, you need a sense of your own reaction to the sound of word and what would happen under a renaming.
Now we move to the sound symbolism of –ump words. In the pronunciation of –ump, the u is a schwa, a mid-vowel, neither high nor low, front nor back, a giving up of breath, as in “uh.” The nasal m is pronounced by opening the nasal tract allowing air to move up and around the nasal tract and then down to the mouth to stop at p. There is release of low energy “uh” tracing a rise in the nasal tract ‘m’ and then a lowering and stopping of the breath at p.
It is a sound pattern that expresses entities of low or no energy having a 3-dimensional shape that can be traced over time as a rise and then a fall. We can see this sound symbolism in bump, lump, hump, rump, plump, and stump, which in each case has a 3-D shape that can be traced by a rise and then a fall. A clump (say, of trees) is a group brought together (cl-) with that shape. A pump is an instrument for blowing up stretchable objects into that shape. A jump in place is a rise and then fall. When you dump something, it goes downward (d-) and what is dumped has the –ump shape. A frump is a low energy person with such an appearance. A grump is someone who makes a growling sound and has that appearance. To slump is to take on such a shape, and a baseball player goes into a slump when his hitting becomes ineffective and his batting average falls. A chump is an ineffective person who is a “fall guy” in interacting with an aggressive effective person who can take advantage of him. And a thump is the sound made by a low energy fall against a solid resonant object.
This bring us to tr+ump — Trump as a name. It has a causal structure: a causal force (the tr-) followed by a person or object (the -ump) that the force acts on and affects. The person or object either already is an –ump or is made into an
–ump by the force. As a person’s name, tr- followed by -ump symbolizes a person who acts with force on existing chumps or creates them by his exertion of force. In short, it names someone who has the power to take advantage of others. In business, it names a person who can profit by taking advantage of others. Similarly, in the game of bridge, trump is a card of a suit that will always win the trick, that is, it has power over a competing card of lesser strength.
That is why he can sell his name in a business deal, market his name by plastering it on everything he owns — the Trump Tower, his airplane, his steaks, wine, suits, ties, with signs in bold letters. He even has managed to get his name on buildings he does NOT own .
Tr+ump is a perfect last name for a presidential candidate who offers himself as the ultimate authority, able to turn others into chumps in politics. It is the perfect name for the ultimate Strict Father and authoritarian ruler — the ultimate authoritarian who makes those ruled into chumps.
The point here is that Shakespeare was wrong. A rose by any other name need not smell just as sweet. Tr+ump is a great name if you want to vote for a powerful person who can take advantage of others — make chumps out of people you don’t like: liberals, Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese, blacks, and people who can’t take care of themselves, namely, the poor.
If you are among the tens of millions of Americans who wholly or mostly idealize strict father morality, someone named TR+UMP sounds like your man.
But what if he didn’t have that name? Would you be voting just for the name, not the real person?
It has been observed that he often acts like a spoiled child. In fact, he was a spoiled child. When his father tried to teach him personal responsibility by making him take on a paper route in Manhattan, he kept out the rain by getting the family chauffer to drive him around in the family Cadillac on his paper route!
In financing building, he got loans on his father’s collateral housing empire that would not rent to African-Americans or Latinos. He got tax breaks through his father’s influence with city officials, who depended on his father’s political donations. When things don’t go his way, he just makes up lies and depends on then power of his name to get him through.
And he renames is opponents: Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary.
Suppose he were renamed.
If there is any a putative strict father cannot be, it is childish and spoiled — and weak. Some children at a young age have trouble pronouncing T+R. The R turns to W after a T, as in Twump. Suppose we change the U to I, to indicate smallness. That would be Twimp.
Imagine a national renaming campaign, starting now. Imagine those with photoshop skills might change the name on the image of his Tower to Twimp. Changing the letters on his plane to Twimp, and have it falling toward the ocean. Photoshop campaign signs to Twimp.
The fact is that Twimp is something a strict father authoritarian cannot be named because it is a weak childish name!
Trump dreams of being the ultimate strongman, like Putin, and to cover his weakness, he tells lies, he tells BIG LIES, REALLY BIGLY! But the bigger the lie, the greater the weakness. He is weak on foreign policy. He is weak on economics. He is especially weak on history. He is really weak on his taxes and has to hide them. And he is dangerously weak on the facts about the use of nuclear weapons!
Twimp’s weakness is revealed in his exaggerations: What he likes is “terrific.” What he dislikes is a “disaster.” All or Nothing. Weak on careful, subtle reason.
Would voters who want a strong authoritarian vote for someone named Twimp?
Do the Twimp polls. Let’s find out.
Democratic candidates need not engage in the renaming. Let the ordinary people who understand the lies and the weaknesses do the renaming on social media.
But isn’t this just fun and whimsical? Shouldn’t everyone be focused on fear — the fear that he might just get elected. The fear is real and justified. But the problem with justified fear-mongering is that it gives power to the person you’re afraid of. By all means discuss why the fear is justified. But take the power away. Rename and rebrand: Twimpie.
If people vote for someone on the basis of the sound symbolism of his name, change the name. Let them try to say they want to elect a Twimp with a straight face.
What’s the point of a Twimp campaign? The candidate is not going to change his name, and reporters are not going to do serious investigative reporting using only the candidate’s new name.
The point is simple: The President of the United States and the Leader of the Free World should not be chosen on the basis of the sound symbolism of his name.
The sound symbolism is unconscious. This paper brings it to consciousness. Offering an alternative with very different sound symbolism is crucial if Americans are to become aware that the sound of the name can be working on them unconsciously and against their better judgment.
Sound symbolism is an issue in this presidential campaign — as weird as that sounds. The issue can only be brought up with a discussion of what the sound symbolism is and what even a slightly different sound symbolism might be.
The issue may sound laughable. But it is quite serious. It needs to be brought to attention, and to be reported on.
Fear also sells in the media. Shouldn’t you be afraid that someone has a chance of being elected president based on the sound of his name?
That is a real fear.
*This version has been edited from an earlier piece on Trump’s name.
It’s interesting how the sound of Trump’s name seems to strike British English speakers, on our island far away. We feel the energy of the Tr, but the ump brings the name to an end too quickly for most of us. It feels a bit brash.
I think Nigel Farage would have had different media interest if his name had been Nigel Trump. The audience would have noticed his history as a City trader more, because his name would have reminded them of it. His ‘man of the people’ persona, cloaked in the soft sound of Farage, would have struggled in the tight sound of Trump.