Though it can be anything big or small – from the bayonet your great, great grandfather carried, to a particular car or a commemorative object – today’s word is as much about representation as it is the actual object. Sure, we are all familiar with competition, victory, and status symbols; however, like art (and to paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart), we may know today’s word when we see an example of it, but what about its origins? After all, that tiny third place prize for the state high school basketball championship had to come from somewhere, right? So let’s look at the word trophy.
Coming to us by way of the Middle French trophée and the earlier Latin trophaeum and consistently defined as ‘a prize of war or a sign of victory’, our word trophy originated as the Greek tropaion, which, finding its root in trope, essentially means ‘to cause a rout or turn the enemy’ (aka achieving a victory). In the earliest understanding of the word, the ancient Greeks would, after a battle, gather arms, captives, standards, personal property, etc. which has been captured from the vanquished opposing side and arrange it on the site of the battle as an offering to the gods for making them victorious.
Interestingly, the first known use of the word doesn’t relate to the prize of war or a sign of the victory. Instead, the first usage, found in Henry Noble MacCracken’s 1911 edition of John Lydgate’s The Serpent of Division (originally from around 1450), relates to an overwhelming victory or a complete rout, stating: “The difference between Triumph and Trophy: Triumph is a full and a planer overcoming of enemies by battle, and Trophy is when a man puts his foemen for dread unto flight without stroke of sword.”
Several decades later, the word reverted back to its original Greco-Roman understanding as a memorial structure erected for a victorious battle, with John Skelton’s translation (circa 1487) of Diodorus Siculus’ The Bibliotheca Historica (Historical Library) mentioning: “But Hercules..pointed them in harneys of his progenitors which he took out of the temple as it was hanged up there to-fore the goddess in token of trophy.”
From giant erected structures, the next half century saw the term somewhat reduced in size, now applying to the individual specific object mentioned before, such as a weapon, personal possession, flag or standard, with Scottish bishop Gavin Douglas’ 1522 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid recounting: “For all the Tuscan tribe..Great trophy and rich spoils to them brings.”
Another almost 50 years later, the word seems to have shed its strictly military meaning, now being seen as virtually anything evidencing a victory, courage, skills, or social status, Edmund Spenser, in a translation of a translation (yup, that’s right)- Edmund Spenser’s 1569 translation of Joachim du Bellay’s Sonets in Theodore Roest’s translation of Jan ver der Noot’s A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings- writes that: “She raised a Trophy over all the world.” Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the term “trophy wife” is a product of Anne Zoltan’s 1973 book, Annie: The Female Experience.
With the usages rapidly extending, it may come as a surprise that the first application of the term to a decorative object rewarded to a victorious sporting team, such as the Stanley Cup, the Ashes Urn, the Claret Jug, or the America’s Cup, was first mentioned in 1822, with a 22 October write-up in the Kent & Essex Mercury noting that: “Should Mr. Charlton be successful enough to win this splendid trophy [sc. the Gold Whip], he will be a gainer of a very considerable sum of money.”
With the word now free to mean anything evidencing a victory, maybe you do deserve that Monday trophy coffee just for making it through the workday?