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What's the origin of the idiom "to blow your own horn"?

Collins Dictionary suggests the following note regarding the BrE version with trumpet:

Note: The usual British expression is blow your own trumpet. Note: In the past, the arrival of important people in a place was announced by the playing of trumpets.

Is there some metaphor behind it with some animal horn? Does the AmE "horn" version derive from the BrE "trumpet" one or viceversa?

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According to the article Instruments of Expression: Bells, Drums, and a Horn, it refers to the practice of heraldry. It comes from the sense of 'horn' as a trumpet, and one who blows his own horn is someone making great fanfare about himself, as is usually more appropriately left to a herald.

It says specifically:

To blow your own horn is to be a braggart or "blowhard." This expression, arising in the American West about the middle of the 19th century, derives from an earlier expression, blow your own trumpet, dating back to at least 1576 and probably originating in medieval times, when heralds blew trumpets to announce the arrival of the king. Of course, any merchant or other commoner who wanted to announce his arrival had to blow his own horn.

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    This link has gone dead. Please replace it with the actual text if possible, or find another citation that says the same thing. – tchrist Aug 24 '18 at 8:14
  • rameset.com/heraldry.htm See blazoning? – Lambie Aug 24 '18 at 16:09
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    @tchrist It doesn't look like the author of this answer has been on the site in a while, so I changed the link to Internet Archive and added a quote so the answer is fixed. – Laurel Aug 24 '18 at 20:02
  • @Laurel Hurray, that's awesome! – tchrist Aug 24 '18 at 20:48
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+100

An early version of 'blow your own horn' appears in Sir Thomas Chaloner's 1549 translation of Erasmus's 1509 (first printed in 1511) Encomium Moriae, "In Praise of Folly":

And what (I praie you) maie be more apt or better fittyng, than dame Foly to praise hir selfe, and be hir owne trumpet? for who can livelier descrive me, then I my selfe?

The use in Erasmus is figurative. 'Trumpet' appears at least as early as 1447 in the sense of a "means or agent (real or imaginary) which proclaims, celebrates, or gives warning of something" (OED, trumpet, n., sense 3).

The Latin source of Chaloner's translation is

Quid enim magis quadrat, quam ut ipsa Moria, suarum laudum fit buccinatrix....

From that source ("buccinatrix"), it is apparent that the intended sense of "trumpet" in Chaloner's translation is the figurative sense of 'trumpeter' (OED, sense 4b of trumpet, n.) corresponding to OED's sense 3 of 'trumpet' (given above).

In light of the much earlier appearance of versions of 'blow your own horn' in the UK than in the US, it is more than likely that the US versions derive from UK versions.

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    Excellent work. I note that Miles Coverdale, The Psalter or boke of Psalmes both in Latyn and Englyshe. wyth a kalender, & a table the more eassyer and lyghtlyer to fynde the psalmes contayned therin (1540) has owne horne in a similar phrase: "I haue sayd to the vnrighteous: do not vnryghteously, and to theÌ„ that offende: exalte not ye youre owne horne. | Set not vp youre horne on hye, talke not of iniquyte agaynste God." – Sven Yargs Aug 26 '18 at 4:00
  • @SvenYargs, a nice find. I'm not sure what to make of it. Interpretations of Psalm 75 seemingly invariably construe 'horn' as a symbol of strength. The metaphorical reference is to 'horn' in the sense of an excrescence (it is cornu in Latin translations of the Psalms, e.g., the phrase in question is nolite exaltare cornu), that is, the horns of sheep and goats, etc., rather than in the sense of 'trumpet'. – JEL Aug 26 '18 at 6:30
  • It's odd, certainly. I don't plan to write an answer to this question—in the next week, anyway—and I would be welcome your decision if you chose to address it (and other early occurrences of "owne horne") in your answer. I also noted some popularity of "sound [one's] own trumpet" in the 18th century, well before the earliest Google Books instances I got for "blow [one's] own trumpet." The earliest "blow [one's] own horn" I found in a Google Books search was from 1810. – Sven Yargs Aug 26 '18 at 17:14
  • @SvenYargs, OED: "In Biblical and derived uses: an emblem of power and might; a means of defence or resistance; hence horn of salvation (†health) is used of God or Christ. to lift up the horn: to exalt oneself; to offer resistance, ‘show fight’." 1810, though...the earliest OED has to offer (that I've found so far) is Twain's 1859 use. Anyway, I'm not sure I'll find time to elaborate, especially if you plan to and have done significant research. – JEL Aug 26 '18 at 20:07
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It means praising or sticking up for yourself, and can have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context.

Besides blowing your own horn/trumpet, you’ll also occasionally tooting or honking substituted for blowing there. Important men used to have heralds to announce their greatness, which is where the expression originally derived from. The metaphor is sometimes adapted to more modern cirumstances; for example, “honking a horn” refers to the horn on a motor vehicle, but the underlying sense of self-praise is unchanged.

  • I know what it means, I was just asking about its origin – user5417 May 10 '12 at 22:22
  • @user070221 Your wish has been granted. – tchrist Aug 24 '18 at 8:15
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Anyone who has trouble understanding where this idiom comes from obviously never shared quarters with a sixth-grader who was learning to play trumpet.   ;^)

In addition to blow/toot your own horn/trumpet, there's also the idiom beat your own drum.

Beat your own drum. Toot your own horn.1

Everyone's right could be someone's wrong
Beat your own drum scream your own song2

Either one means "draw some attention to yourself." Usually, the easiest way to do that is to make a lot of noise, to clang your own cymbals. Although, if you really want to catch someone's attention, whisper.3


1 Bob Schumacher, SOLUTIONS
2Teresa Taylor, Love Poetry
3Tag line for an advertising campaign for Coty perfume, #86 on this list

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Matthew 6:2-4 2“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

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    Are you implying that Matthew 6 is the actual historical origin of "to blow your own horn"? Is there any evidence to support such a theory? For example can you show it not used in English before the Bible was translated into English? Please flesh out your answer. – MetaEd Mar 4 '14 at 18:48
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This idiom most likely came from Chinese “blow (the trumpet) and beat (the drum) for yourself”, which was poorly translated. Whose trumpet will you blow if you do not blow your own?

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • In answer to your question, your master's, which was the more common practice both west and east. The English saying almost certainly did not come directly from a chengyu but this could still be a pleasant and helpful answer – lly Aug 28 '18 at 10:01
  • (a) if it merely offered a Chinese version without the highly dubious claim that China was the actual origin of the expression, (b) let alone claiming so without a source and with the unjustified confidence expressed by "most likely"; (c) if it offered an earliest citation and date for the Chinese expression; and (d) if it gave the 漢字 and pīnyīn for the Chinese rather than only providing it in translation. Further, additions to direct quotations are better set off with brackets [like this] rather than parentheses (like these). – lly Aug 28 '18 at 10:01

protected by tchrist Aug 24 '18 at 8:06

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