Trend Watch

Trump: Comey Is a 'Showboat'

Lookups spiked 631,566% after Trump used the word to describe Comey

Showboat, lived up to the meaning of at least one of its several senses on May 11th, 2017, as it ostentatiously pushed its way to the front of the line, and was among our top lookups. This vainglorious display of linguistic showmanship came after Donald Trump used the word to describe former FBI Director, James Comey.

In his first extended comments on a move that has roiled Washington, Mr. Trump castigated Mr. Comey, calling him “a showboat” and “a grandstander” who had created turmoil at the bureau. But the president’s description of his decision-making process conflicted with the account provided previously by his aides.
—Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, 11 May 2017

Showboat began to be used in the early 19th century, and initially had an exceedingly literal meaning (a boat on which shows were held). By the early 20th century the word was also being used as a verb, first to refer to producing shows on a boat, and soon after to indicate that a person was showing off.

His rival on the river was Sol Smith, and these two men did as much as any to make river showboating famous.
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), 5 Feb. 1911

He show-boated all over the place. He gloated like a small boy when he was ahead, and he pouted all over the premises when things went against him.
—Shirley Povich, The Washington Post, 1 Jul. 1937

At about the same time the noun form of the word also took on the meaning of “one who tries to attract attention by conspicuous behavior.” In its earliest uses this term was used in reference to athletes, and somewhat later was applied to attention-seekers of more sedentary nature.

Showboat Ray McQuillan, Portland middleweight, knocked out Jack Moore, Spokane in the first round with a right to the jaw.
The Capital Journal (Salem, OR), 9 Dec. 1931

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