What Is The Origin Of (300)?…

One’s trumpeter is dead

We’ve all heard of blowing your own trumpet, a phrase denoting that you are being boastful. It is always preferable, I feel, to have someone else singing your praises, your own trumpeter, as it were. Of course, if your own trumpeter is dead, then you are forced to extol your own virtues yourself. Our phrase is used by someone who feels the need to boast or to describe a person who is a habitual boaster.  

Benjamin Franklin seemed enamoured of the phrase, using it on a couple of occasions at least. In a letter he wrote to Andrew Bradford on February 4, 1729 under the nom de plume of The Busy Body he was being unduly modest, with tongue pressed firmly to his cheek, when urging the editor to allow his organ, The Weekly Mercury, to be used as a platform for Franklin’s views; “my Character indeed I would favour you with, but that I am cautious of praising my Self, lest I should be told my Trumpeter’s dead”.

In another letter, this time to the clergyman and agronomist, Jared Eliot, written on February 13, 1749, Franklin commented on the natural inclination to sing one’s own praises; “that this natural inclination, appears, in that all children show it, and say freely, I am a good boy; am I not a good girl? and the like; ‘till they have been frequently chid, and told their trumpeter is dead; and that it is unbecoming to sound their own praise…” Ephraim Doolittle, on finding that his character was b eing blackened, felt obliged to pen a missive to The Farmer’s Library, a Vermont publication, on April 15, 1793. In his defence the unfortunate Doolittle, perhaps wishing he had lived up to his name, wrote, “I am not conscious to myself, that I have ever wittingly or willingly injured any man to the value of one copper; but perhaps my trumpeter is dead, or only sick”.       

Given the examples cited above, you would be forgiven in thinking that the phrase is an Americanism. This is not necessarily so as the expression appears in the distinctly English A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and published in 1788. In the section devoted to the trumpet, Grose defines the phrase to sound one’s own trumpet as “to praise one’s self”. He then goes on to define the King of Spain’s trumpeter as “a braying ass” and “his trumpeter is dead, he is therefore forced to sound his own trumpet”. Trumpeting is clearly associated in Grose’s mind and, presumably in the colloquial speech of the English common folk, with stupidity and pomposity. We can, perhaps, assume, that the phrase found its way to the Americas.

Incidentally, some commentators regard the association of the King of Spain’s trumpeter with a braying ass as a pun on the word donkey, Don being the title for a Spanish nobleman. It might just be, but it does seem a little far-fetched to me.

Without wishing to be informed that my trumpeter is dead, I have enjoyed putting together these etymological excursions. Having reached the three-hundredth post, I have decided that I will stop these regular Friday posts. Rest assured, there will be more word-related posts, but in a different format.

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