In a recent Academia SE question, user moonman239 writes:

Example: Bathroom breaks, an urgent phone call, or a need to "play the trumpet" (if you know what I mean)

As the user does not seem to respond any more, those of us who do not know what he or she meant are now left wondering what was actually meant.

Based on googling, I did not find any conclusive evidence to a commonly understood meaning of the expression "play the trumpet". In fact, virtually all results I could find seem to talk about people who - literally - play a musical instrument, a trumpet.

I can see some possible explanations that could (remotely) make some sense also in the context of the question, although they realistically strike me as quite far-fetched:

  • It might be a general way to express "make noise" (literally and figuratively), by talking, singing, jumping around, or whatever other freedom is desired that would not be possible in the described context (of a university lecture hall).
  • Trumpets can be used to play recognizeable melodies, and thus may serve as leading or solo instruments. Hence, "playing the trumpet" could be a euphemism for "taking the lead", for instance, in a group working on a project, as opposed to a lecture hall, where the lecturer has the superior role towards all attendees.

Given that a euphemism is used in the first place, though, it could also be that the expression is meant to refer to a taboo-ish topic:

  • If we concentrate on the play part (with the trumpet being a somewhat arbitrary placeholder for the object of playing to create a memorable expression), the expression might be interpreted as a euphemism for "masturbation".
  • If we concentrate on the trumpet part, i.e. something that creates loud sounds, the expression might refer to "(audible) flatulence".
  • In fact, the direct Chinese translation of "playing the trumpet" ("吹喇叭") seems to be used in Taiwan as a euphemism for fellatio.

With the background in mind that this is about something that could cause students to urgently leave a lecture rather than wait for some one or two hours until it ends, not a single one of these interpretations sounds actually likely (even less so if the activity would require several students to suddenly feel the same need).

Therefore, my question is: What does the expression "play the trumpet" mean (if it means anything), and if so, is it commonly used in English (or just in some English-speaking places)?

  • 2
    I admit that flatulence or sneezing have crossed my mind, but the former has other more commonly used euphemisms, and both can potentially be subsumed under "bathroom break". – Willie Wong Apr 30 '15 at 11:32
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    This is hours ago. Best to wait for the user to come back to clarify himself. – Marius Hancu Apr 30 '15 at 11:50
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    @MariusHancu: True, though sometimes, there is the feeling of an urgent need to find out about something ;) – O. R. Mapper Apr 30 '15 at 11:51
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    Neither sneezing nor farting require a bathroom break. Sneezing only requires a tissue, and a place out of sight and sound of the easily-offended hearers; farting likewise requires only a certain distance (out of earshot and sufficiently downwind to effect dispersal). So either is a quite plausible meaning for the euphemism. (I never heard "playing the trumpet" either, but farting is what immediately came to mind when I read it.) – Brian Hitchcock May 22 '15 at 7:11
  • You've documented very well that this phrase is not part of standard English and has no accepted meaning. This frivolous question makes me want to "scratch my pillow," if you know what I mean. – Jason Melançon May 22 '15 at 19:09

It is a euphemism for fart, as in Dante’s Inferno, last line of Canto XXI:

ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

And he had made a trumpet of his ass. (trans. John Ciardi)

  • Maybe etymologically related to the British slang to trump. – Dougal Apr 2 '18 at 16:34

I've never heard it either.

Of your two latter guesses, the need to fart seems more likely to me, but since that can be safely (?) assumed to be covered by "bathroom breaks", that seems to eliminate it as a choice?

The use of euphemism ("if you know what I mean") does seem to call for some taboo act, but masturbation seems unlikely. The other examples given convey a sense of urgency, which the desire to masturbate does not carry (and unless one is unusually flexible, it is unlikely that one both owns the trumpet and also plays it; and it seems even more far-fetched that the sudden urge to go play someone else's trumpet is either common or desperate enough to warrant excusing oneself from class).

My guess? A cigarette break.

  • 1
    My guess, a (loud) fart. – TRomano Apr 30 '15 at 11:38
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    @TimRomano OP offered that guess in his question, and I addrssed it in the 2nd para of my answer, here. Also, Willie Wong made a similar comment one the same lines re: farting. – Dan Bron Apr 30 '15 at 11:39
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    @TimRomano Hey! Having an external source to back up your position is always welcome. You might want to make the case for farting in a separate answer, supported by that UD link. – Dan Bron Apr 30 '15 at 11:41
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    @Dan Bron: Can't right now. An urgent phone call to make. – TRomano Apr 30 '15 at 11:43
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    O.R. You're right. I kinda dismissed the first two guesses off the bat because they're not something one would refer to slyly using euphemism, and they're also not common, sudden, or desperate urges that typically warrant excusing oneself from class; they certainly don't seem common enough to me to warrant asking a question about. – Dan Bron Apr 30 '15 at 11:44

It might be an idiom in other languages:

An Arabic-English Vocabulary of the Colloquial Arabic of ... Socrates Spiro - 1895

bauwaq, to play the trumpet, reply insolently

Now, the way this is written may mean that in 1895 in some quarter(s) of the English-speaking word:

to play the trumpet = reply insolently

As Much as a Rat's Tail: Korean Slang- Page 44 Peter N. Liptak, ‎Siwoo Lee - 2010 - ‎Preview

[Korean-language signs] Literally, to play the trumpet, this refers to the habit of drinking straight from the bottle, (putting the lips to the trumpet, so to speak) which was not commonly acceptable until recent times in Korea because manners dictated ...

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    Ah yes. The writer in question was alluding to either 19th century European letters, or Korean folk patois. – Fattie Apr 30 '15 at 14:20

Quite simple,

you're right, this IS NOT any sort of standard idiom in English.

Please read this detailed answer, on the same topic: https://english.stackexchange.com/a/197637/8286

If the above three sentences aren't clear enough: in the title the OP asks "What does “play the trumpet” mean?" In fact, quite simply, the question is unfounded: it means nothing, as the section from the post in question is an incoherent "attempt at" using a "cheeky idiom": a meaningless sound-collection, assembled from fragments of phrases the writer has heard.

It's a case of "it's just that simple."

As is said over and over and over and over and over on this site when this (common) issue arises, it's literally just the syntactic equivalent of a typo: a "type phrase" if you will.

Note once again that, indeed, this is a commonplace, topical, problem in English professional writing today (not to mention the scribblings of incoherent illiterates on the internet).

  • That partially answers the part of the question asking for whether this is a standard expression, however, as it implies it is a mangled form of something standard, it totally lacks an explanation of what "play the trumpet" actually means (or what standard idiom it is derived from). – O. R. Mapper Apr 30 '15 at 14:10
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    Hi Mapper. If you get a chance, please read the long linked answer. And also read the long comments just above under Dan's answer, ok? Then come back to me. The person who wrote the original text .. is a moron. There was no "original meaning" which got mangled. the writer in question has vaguely (in their dim conception of the universe) seen other writers "saying clever! things!" (what you and I would prefer to as idioms). Here, the writer in question as trying to use one of 'dem 'der "clever things". it's not a "mangled version of something meaningful". it is... – Fattie Apr 30 '15 at 14:13
  • .. it is simply the mental equivalent of a "typo". As I tried to explain to Don and Marius, their discourses on "possible theoretical meanings" - no matter how erudite (indeed, your own erudite original question text) ........ are completely and utterly misplaced. – Fattie Apr 30 '15 at 14:14

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