11

Is there a distinction between "hallmarks" and "trappings"? What separates them? I've scoured many dictionaries, but I don't see the difference.

For example, Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus defines trappings as "all the things that are part of or typical of a particular job, situation, or event" [link], and it defines hallmark as "a typical characteristic or feature of a person or thing" [link]. These seem the same to me.

Likewise, I've looked at some examples:

  • trappings:
    • "She enjoyed all the trappings of success/wealth."
    • "The president's trip had all the trappings of a state visit."
  • hallmarks:
    • "The murder bore all the hallmarks of a serial killer's work.
    • "He had all the hallmarks of a great baseball player."

In each of these examples, "trappings" or "hallmarks" refers to (unspecified) characteristics that someone or something has, that cause people to perceive him/her/it as being in a specified class or having a specified status.

7
  • 17
    In what way do you think that hallmark and trappings are sufficiently close synonyms of each other to have a subtle distinction between them? To me they are completely different words and a quick search of online dictionaries does not reveal secondary meanings which could be confused. Please give examples of the usage which causes you the difficulty.
    – BoldBen
    May 19 at 7:07
  • 6
    Are you aware of the literal meaning of 'hallmark' (a set of symbols stamped on precious metal to show that it is genuine)? May 19 at 7:45
  • I'm more familiar with the second definition of hallmark. I only have a basic flimsy grasp of the word's first meaning. May 19 at 7:47
  • 3
    lexico.com/definition/trappings look under "more examples" and "synonyms" lexico.com/synonyms/trappings The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or job. Nearly all the examples cited mention wealth and success. You wouldn't ask "What is the hallmark of fame and fortune?" if you wanted to know what are the benefits and advantages.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 19 at 7:56
  • 2
    Perhaps consider that hallmarks are marks i.e. markings as in the hallmark on gold and silver items. And that trappings are objects. The hallmarks of a serial killer are the wounds inflicted on the victim 'marks'. hallmark of great baseball player are the players stats (marks on a piece of paper). Trappings of wealth are luxury cars, fur coats, big houses, speed boats and so on. Trappings of a state visit - limousines, red carpets...
    – Charemer
    May 19 at 16:28

4 Answers 4

18

One key difference between the two words in the meaning you've posed is expected number in usage:

  • hallmark is usually singular
  • trappings is usually plural

The hallmark (OED, "hallmark, n." def. b) is "a distinctive mark or token of genuineness, good breeding, or excellence." Usually someone has one, e.g.:

1894 Ld. Wolseley Life Marlborough I. 140 The hall-mark of real military genius.

Trappings (OED, "trappings, n.1," def. b) explicitly notes that it is usually plural:

transferred. Chiefly plural. ‘Ornaments; dress; embellishments; external, superficial, and trifling decoration’ (Johnson). Also figurative.

As you can see, the trappings are often superficial decoration, whereas a hallmark shows some kind of authenticity or excellence.

3
  • 5
    One important bit of context that might help from those OED entries: a hallmark "originally" is a physical stamp on a piece of silver conveying permanent, unchangeable information about it; whereas trappings referred to an ornate set of gear for a horse – gear that someone had put on and could in principle change.
    – Landak
    May 19 at 16:23
  • May I ask why this is a community wiki? Just curious...
    – Justin
    May 21 at 9:20
  • 1
    @Justin I noticed a difference not accounted for in the first answer and wanted to create an answer anyone could add to if they noticed other differences. May 21 at 11:18
17

The origins of the terms points to a significant connotational difference.

Hallmark: "early 18th century (as a noun): from Goldsmiths' Hall in London, where articles were tested and stamped with such a mark." (see Oxford Learners )

Trappings: "late Middle English: derivative of the verb trap ‘put trappings on a horse’." (see Oxford Learners )

The clear difference here is that a hallmark is an intentional marker of a status. Trappings are literally clothing, the reflection of a status or even an accidental side-effect.

For an athlete, the blue ribbon or medal around the neck are the hallmarks, but the shoes or high-end equipment and sponsor logos are the trappings. They both communicate 'success' or 'high performance' but hallmarks are intentional whereas trappings are incidental.

11

You could think of it this way: hallmarks are the aspects that make someone fit a classic, respected stereotype; trappings are superficial aspects that we notice in a detached, skeptical way. We are not being respectful when we talk about trappings, but we are when we talk about hallmarks.

4
  • "but we are [being respectful] when we talk about hallmarks" Almost all the usages I can find are negative: war crimes, terrorism, fraud, cancer. Or am I misunderstanding what you mean?
    – Michael
    May 19 at 17:10
  • 3
    @Michael - Hallmarks are traditionally more neutral while trappings are more cynical. But they do have a lot of overlap. May 19 at 17:33
  • 1
    @Michael "Respect" can also mean "take seriously, see as significant". e.g. you can neutrally "respect the rules" - it doesn't mean you admire them. Genghis Khan was very serious and dedicated and competent warmonger - any enemy generals would have had a lot of respect for his abilities. (I'm not sure if this is what aparente001 means, or not, but I think it fits the definition for hallmark, anyway) May 20 at 12:59
  • Thank you, @lessthanideal. May 20 at 14:56
2

I would say that a hallmark is how you distinguish the real thing from something fake: the hallmark of a gentleman is his courtesy to others. Trappings are superficial and can be misleading: gentlemen might wear frock coats and top hats, but so might imposters.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.