Word in the news: Trumpmentum
In the physical world, momentum is a measurement of the quantity of motion of a moving body (technically speaking, the product of its mass and velocity); as a ball rolls down a hill, its velocity increases, and we say that it “gains momentum”. Momentum is often used figuratively to refer to impetus or driving force, and it has taken on a special meaning in the context of American presidential elections, where it is used to refer to a candidate’s increasing likelihood of victory as poll numbers rise, or as one primary or caucus victory is seen as leading inexorably to another. It is that meaning of the word that is at work in the portmanteau Trumpmentum, which has been showing up on Oxford’s new words tracking corpus in recent months as what once seemed fanciful—the anointing of the real estate developer and television personality Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate—seems increasingly likely.
The big mo
The full word momentum was applied to impetus in political campaigns from at least the mid-20th century, but its use seems to have increased significantly starting in the 1980s. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in January 1980 that Republican candidate George H. W. Bush popularized the term big mo with reference to the political momentum he claimed would push him to victory. Of course, Bush ultimately lost to Reagan that year, but the concept of mo or momentum has stayed with us as an inescapable trope of the media’s election coverage, even though analysts such as the statistician Nate Silver question the validity of the notion of political momentum as a predictor of future performance.
Donald Trump is far from being the only candidate to inaugurate a -mentum portmanteau in this year’s presidential election. More euphonious is Marcomentum, which popped up after Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses; the overlap of the -o- in Marco with the -o- in momentum makes for a more effective blend. Even Jeb Bush, whose lackluster performance in the early contests of the Republican primary led him to suspend his campaign after the South Carolina primary, spawned at least a few mentions of Jeb-mentum. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was long the presumptive nominee, but Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly robust showing in Iowa and New Hampshire prompted references to Berniementum and Bernmentum.
The 2016 campaign’s proliferation of -mentums is not unprecedented. In the 2012 election cycle we had Mittmentum, (and less successfully, Romneymentum) from the name of the eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney, not to mention the short-lived coinages Santorumentum (after Rick Santorum) and Newtmentum (from Newt Gingrich) in the early days of the nominating contest. In the 2008 election cycle, which is best remembered as a tooth-and-nail fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, the word Joementum was briefly bandied about with reference to the ill-fated campaign of Joe Biden, and then later to the joint ticket of Biden and Obama when the former was tapped as the latter’s VP. The inevitable blend of Joementum dates even earlier, however: in 2004 it was the rallying cry of Democrat Joe Lieberman, who declared that his campaign was beginning to pick up steam ahead of the 2004 New Hampshire primary. In the event, he came in fifth, an outcome which was mocked with a cavalcade of portmanteaux by Slate’s William Saletan: “Alas, Joeverconfidence felled him. He finished fifth in New Hampshire and was written off. He was Joast. Joadkill. D-Joe-A.”
The future of -mentum
Blends of political names with momentum have become common enough in English that it may be appropriate to consider -mentum as yet another so-called “libfix” which has become an affix in its own right, like -kini (from bikini) or -tastic (from fantastic). The trend has even gone international: in Australia, Ruddmentum (from the name of Kevin Rudd) emerged as a hashtag in 2013 during struggles over the leadership of the Australian Labor Party and has come up again more recently in the context of Rudd’s bid to become the next Secretary General of the United Nations. Whatever the future of Trumpmentum (the word and the phenomenon), it seems clear that other candidates’ monikers will beget new -mentums in the future—if not in 2016, then in elections to come.