triumph /’traɪəmf/

Given a choice between investigating a word’s origins and going for a ride on my motorcycle, the weighting is heavily determined by the weather. So while the sun shines down in NE Ohio and the temperatures stick around the 80’s, there’s little mystery as to why there’s been a delay in the weekly posting. This, of course, is the correct decision to make because life is’ after all, about experiences and not writing about experiences. As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his masterpiece, Zorba the Greek;

I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

In the movie – a rare case of where a film actually does justice to a novel – you get to see how the English, bookish, academic character played by Alan Bates learns a valuable lesson from Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, about what it means to be alive. Those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie are in for a treat when you finish reading this and rush out to buy them (or order them online – whichever is your preference.)

Zorba teaches Basil

My motorcycle is a Triumph Bonneville America, perhaps not an unusual choice for an English ex-pat, I suppose. It is, without doubt, one of the most stylish bikes on the planet – although I may be a little biased. I can guarantee that whenever I park up, someone is going to come over and talk to me and tell me how much they like it. I’d like to say it was a “chick magnet” but it’s more of a “geezer magnet,” so the typical discussion revolves around engines, torque, valves, and other items about which I have no clue. To paraphrase Star Trek‘s Leonard McCoy, “I’m a linguist, dammit, not an engineer.”

2003 Triumph Bonneville America

The word triumph is of Greek origin, θρίαμβος, and means a hymn to Dionysus sung in processions to his honor. Dionysos, who was to become Bacchus for the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Well, in the sense that he was in charge of wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, and the Greek stage.


The Romans took the notion of the “hymn of praise” to use the word as follows:

The entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.

The word appears to have slipped into the Latin via Etruscan, according to Liddell and Scott, authors of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, first published in 1819.  From there it morphed into Old French triumpher, the Provençal triomfar, Spanish triunfar, Portuguese triumphar, and Italian trionfare. So all in all, quite a popular and useful word.

Triumphant entry: Spring by Alma-Tadema

There’s an early use of the word by King Aelfred in 893, but we can see it in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite (1374)  where he says. “With his tryumphe and laurer corovned thus… Let I this noble prince Theseus Towarde Athenes in his wey ryding.” By the 16th century, it had slipped across the border from noun-hood to verbiness;

I tryumphe for a conquest or a victorye gotten… It was a marvaylouse syght to se the Romanynes tryumphe, whan they had the vyctorie of their ennemyes. (Palsgrave (1530), Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse).

At around the same time, specifically in 1529, a priest named Hugh Latimer gave a controversial Christmas sermon on playing cards. Although this was a pastime sanctioned by the church at Christmastime, the Reformers were antagonistic, even though Latimer used the metaphor to teach a spiritual truth based on the triumph or trump card. In fact, he uses the words triumph and trump synonymously. Compare the following:

Heartes is trumpe. {emem} Cast thy tromp vnto them both, and gather them all three together.

And then;

Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes, that they maye haue and obteyne the triumph; you must marke also that the triumphe muste apply to fetche home vnto hym all the other cardes, whatsoeuer sute they bee of.

So the word trump, as used in cards, comes from the word triumph. Incidentally, the Sermon on the Cards may well be the original precursor of the popular Text Ritter country song from 1948, The Deck of Cards. This tells the story of a soldier arrested for playing cards but who talks his way out of the charge by saying that the deck is his bible, with the Ace representing God, the two the Old and New Testaments, the three Holy Trinity, and so on.

Deck of cards

Other noun variations are triumphator or triumpher – one who triumphs; triumphress – a woman who triumphs; triumphalism – the sense of pride after achieving a triumph; and triumphancy – the state of being triumphant. Although these are not likely to be tripping off the tongue on a regular basis, they do illustrate how the word has blossomed since its early days.

As well as sitting happily in the noun and verb camps, triumph‘s promiscuity extends to its sleeping with adjectives and adverbs. The popular triumphant can be traced back to the late 15th century, and it’s less frequently used analog, triumphal even further back to the beginning of that century. Triumphous pops up at around the same time, and by sticking the adjectival -ing on the end, triumphing appears as yet another option in the earlier 16th century, with poet William Dunbar offering “O hye trivmphing peradiss of joy (Poems, 1500-1520). Why, there’s even the existence of triumphable (capable of being triumphed over), but a quick Google search reveals a ghit score of 106, of which most are in sentence pairs where one ends in triumph and the next starts with able (“…triumph. Able…)

In terms of adverbs, you can do things triumphantly, or even triumphally, as evidenced in an article from the Miami Herald in 1984, where we read, “Mike Zeck returns triumphally as… the local kid who actually did break into the business.”

It’s heating up outside. The sun is still shining. My bike is waiting. Write no more.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. D.H. Lawrence



Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

2 responses to “triumph /’traɪəmf/

  1. An engaging twinning of “triumph” and your Triumph. It’s also kind of sweet that a linguist should call (tongue in cheek?) the country singer “Text” instead of “Tex.” Happy riding!

    • In all honesty, the “tongue in cheek” use of “text” was really a “foot in mouth” error. I’m sure my good friend Dr. Freud would have something about my unconscious desire to take something short and make it longer.

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