Coming Up Trumps

A conversation about words



Bill and Hillary Clinton were the most popular source of eponyms submitted by readers, providing the basis for six words, sometimes in tandem (e.g., “Billaried: to be faced with a double-barreled juggernaut of media hype”). George W. Bush, John Boehner, and the Kardashians were tapped eponymously by three readers apiece, followed by Al Gore, Benjamin Netanyahu, Robert Durst, and Bruce Jenner with two readers each. Although I doubt that Durst, the apparent multiple murderer, will enjoy more than 15 minutes of fame, Jenner might. The intriguing suggestion to call a sex change Jenneration works only in print, however, as does Jennerate.

My favorite entries include Jagger, meaning “to work with undiminished enthusiasm into old age,” like the septuagenarian rocker. This eponym has a nifty neo-onomatopoeic quality. I also like Madoff, which uses the surname of swindler Bernard Madoff for “someone who gains the trust of people while furtively robbing them of their assets.” Then there’s Trump, defined as “a man whose hair is obviously a fake color and is combed over in a sad attempt to hide baldness.” Based on all the fun eponymous opportunities Donald Trump’s hairdo provides (Trumped Hair, a Full Trump, Modified Trump, Trump l’oeil, etc.), it’s my top pick.


According to a recent headline, Senator Elizabeth Warren is “all in” for the senatorial candidacy of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Is that better than being “all out”? “In” and “out” are what I call “antosyns,” antonyms that can be used as if they were synonyms. Not only can you be all in or all out, you can also have it in for someone or have it out for them. A light bulb can go off in one’s head, but it can also go on. One can sign off on a plan of action, or sign on to it.

The appeal of someone else’s argot can inspire us to adopt a term that’s an antonym of the one it replaces yet is used synonymously. Taking a leaf from gamblers, we’re as likely now to double down as to double up. A debt can be paid up or paid down (or paid off, for that matter). Prisoners are locked up and locked down. If not buttoned down, a formal sort of person is buttoned up.

Undoubtedly these examples only hint at the universe of antosyns. For a Scholar tote bag, identify a pair of antonyms that can be used synonymously, and give an illustration of these antosyns in use. Enter our contest here.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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