Sunday, September 26, 2010

`Something Trumpery'

Unexpectedly a word shows up in my head and I’m uncertain whether it is a word, where I heard it and why it appears now. It happened Saturday: trangam, a word that looks suspiciously like an anagram (Ma Grant?) and almost is an anagram of “anagram.” The sound provides few clues. A tribal council in northern Thailand? A pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty? Ernie Trangam, short stop for the Cubs?

Webster’s Third offers this: “[origin unknown] archaic: an odd device or puzzle: trinket, gimcrack.” The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1911) includes the variant spelling trangram and this definition: “Something trumpery, unusual, or of no value; a gimcrack.” It also cites three usages:

William Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer (1677): “But go, thou Trangame, and carry back those Trangames, which thou hast stol’n or purloin’d.”

John Arbuthnot’s The History of John Bull (1727): “What a devil’s the meaning of all these trangrams and gimcracks, gentlemen?”

And Walter Scott’s The Abbott (1820): “`But, hey-day, what, have you taken the chain and medal off from my bonnet?’ `And meet time it was, when you usher, vinegar-faced rogue that he is, began to inquire what popish trangam you were wearing.’”

It’s a word I’m unlikely ever to use again, except perhaps while playing Scrabble, though I’m grateful for the chance to navigate so amusing ("vinegar-faced rogue") an etymological cul-de-sac. Follow a word long enough and it dissolves into sound without meaning, “a bubble in a bathtub,” as an eminent philologist once put it. I invite readers to chart a course from two words I found on the same page as “trangam” in The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia:

Trank: “In glove-making, an oblong piece taken from the skin, from which the shape of the glove is cut by a knife in a press.” And even better, tranka: “A long cylindrical box balanced and juggled by the feet of an acrobat.”

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along the entry for "trangam" in the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (1989):

"Obs. An odd or intricate contrivance of some kind; a knick-knack, a puzzle; a toy, trinket; a gewgaw, trumpery ornament. Applied to anything which the speaker views with contempt.

"a1658 CLEVELAND Engagement Stated 21 When neither Arts nor Arms can serve to fight, And wrest a Title from its Law and Right, Must Malice piece the Trangum? and make clear The Scruple? 1672 EACHARD Hobbs' State Nat. 21 A Cause is a certain pack or aggregate of trangams, which being all packed up and chorded close together, they may then truly be said in Law to constitute a compleat and essential pack. 1676 WYCHERLEY Pl. Dealer III. i, But go, thou Trangame, and carry back those Trangames, Which thou hast stol'n or purloin'd. 1678 A. BEHN Sir P. Fancy IV. iii, Get you gone, and finefy your knacks and tranghams. 1679 OLDHAM Sat. Jesuits iv. (1682) 85 These [pretended sacred relics] are the Fathers Implements, and Tools, Their gawdy Trangums for inveigling Fools. [1686 GOAD Celest. Bodies III. ii. 399 He, who looks upon Architecture and Fortification to be only Trangunims, is a Wise Man.] 1712 ARBUTHNOT John Bull III. vi, Hey day, what's here? What a Devil's the meaning of all these Trangams and Gimcracks, Gentlemen? 1719 J. ROBERTS Spinster 349 If they should rise from the dead now, and see you dressed up in your painted trangums, and East India rags, while all the poor Spinners hung about you crying for bread and for work. 1820 SCOTT Abbot xix, When yon usher..began to inquire what Popish trangam you were wearing... This comes of carrying Popish nick-nackets about you."

ADDENDUM II: My brother tells me we had a game or puzzzle when we were kids called Tangram. It involved making figures out of geometric shapes such as triangles and squares. I have no memory of this.

1 comment: said...

Today, on the way to work while listening to an audiobook of William Gaddis' The Recognitions, I hear the word "trangam" and I had to laugh. Knowing what it meant after reading this post made for a fun listen.