Certain adjectives fit certain public figures so perfectly that they become Homeric epithets. The Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred (966–1016) is known to us commoners as The Unready, a mistranslation of an Old English word meaning “ill advised.” President Obama was frequently tagged with aloof – disregarding his deeply empathetic side, beautifully revealed in this recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article about the Office of Presidential Correspondence. The engine of paranoia, fury, and malign intelligence that drove the 37th U.S. president eventually gave rise to its own adjective: Nixonian.
The current occupant of the White House has spent only a little more than two weeks on the job. Yet already one word is appearing so often in connection with him that it merits close attention: vainglorious.
I have to say, this administration has certainly given the word "vainglorious" a workout.
— Kyrie O'Connor (@KyrieMeMo) February 2, 2017
Vainglorious has appeared twice in the New Yorker since Inauguration Day. Here’s the headline of a story by Robin Wright.
The kicker repeated the word: “But it’s hard to see how America’s new leader will recoup from a performance so shallow, irreverent, and vainglorious.”
The second New Yorker article to link Trump and vainglorious was a Daily Comment by Jiayang Fan published on February 2. Fan, an immigrant from China, wrote: “In the next four to eight years, American children will be born in a country led by a vainglorious man who wishes to fit facts—and their future—into the convenient shape of his ego.”
The New York Times has used vainglorious at least three times in the last two and a half weeks. An editorial by the paper’s editorial board, “What President Trump Doesn’t Get About America,” commented on the inaugural speech:
Vainglorious on a podium where other presidents have presented themselves as fellow citizens, preening where they have been humble, Mr. Trump declared that under him America will “bring back our jobs” and “bring back our borders,” “bring back our wealth” and “bring back our dreams.”
A Times Sunday Magazine “First Words” column about the over- and mis-use of “humbled” asked “When did humility get so cocky and vainglorious?” And an op-ed by Frank Bruni repeated “vainglorious” and added “cockamamie” to a description of Trump’s C.I.A. speech.
Vainglorious is getting a workout outside the U.S., too. An opinion piece in New Zealand’s Dominion Post called Trump “an impulsive, narcissistic, vengeful, ignorant, vainglorious bully.” The Sydney Morning Herald called him “the Mad King: volatile, vainglorious, and untrustworthy.”
Twitter hasn’t been shy about the V-word, either.
He has no views. He's a vainglorious puppet surrounded by Nazis and kleptocrats. https://t.co/jZJEE6YFmd— Evan DeSimone (@Smorgasboredom) February 2, 2017
What evil looks like in the real world-- here is Donald Trump: selfish, vainglorious, eager to prop up his ego no matter who it hurts— Eric Rosenfield (@ericrosenfield) January 28, 2017
Cheetolini is now my favorite nickname for Vainglorious Leader. https://t.co/FEWhDC5eo4— So-Called Gosnell (@infinite_me) February 5, 2017
Vainglorious is a relatively old word in English: the OED’s earliest citations are from the first half of the 15th century. The noun vainglory is even older, dating back to the early 14th century. The noun was imported from Latin vana gloria; it’s defined as “glory that is vain, empty, or worthless; inordinate or unwarranted pride in one's accomplishments or qualities; disposition or tendency to exalt oneself unduly; idle boasting or vaunting.” If it hadn’t existed before the Age of Trump, someone doubtless would have coined it, because there are occasions for which only a puffed-up four-syllable word beginning with “vain” will do.*
My favorite Vainglorious Trump story has a special vanity twist. It comes from Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter, who co-founded and edited the satirical magazine Spy (1986–1998). In the Spy era, Trump was just a striving real-estate guy from Queens, and the magazine took special glee in mocking him. In the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, Carter reminisced about those days:
Like so many bullies, Trump has skin of gossamer. He thinks nothing of saying the most hurtful thing about someone else, but when he hears a whisper that runs counter to his own vainglorious self-image, he coils like a caged ferret. Just to drive him a little bit crazy, I took to referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy magazine. That was more than a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers. I almost feel sorry for the poor fellow because, to me, the fingers still look abnormally stubby. The most recent offering arrived earlier this year, before his decision to go after the Republican presidential nomination. Like the other packages, this one included a circled hand and the words, also written in gold Sharpie: “See, not so short!” I sent the picture back by return mail with a note attached, saying, “Actually, quite short.” Which I can only assume gave him fits.