Friday, October 21, 2016

Is Trump Saying Bigly or Big League?

When it comes to assaults on language, Donald Trump is Genghis Khan, and the latest killing field in his syntactical warfare is the quasi-word, bigly. Or is he saying, big league? That debate is raging and you can machete through a thicket of opinions with a quick search.

The resting state for this particular Trumpism appears to be that he is saying big league, but cannot quite eek out that last glottal stop. I wonder how he plans to pronounce blitzkrieg.

A People Magazine reporter in good stead with the Trump machine recently assured one and all that he was indeed saying big league, that clarification having been emailed from the campaign to the reporter in the middle of the debate after its usage there. Trump used to say the same thing about a year ago and the same questions came up then, and the campaign likewise insisted that he was saying big league, and not an imagined adverbial form of big. The line from the Trump campaign has been steady on this.

Bigly is not a word. It has a history as a word, but it is a word no longer. Its turn of the twentieth century usage meant boastfully or with great haughtiness. While accurate with Trump in most cases, it had a distinctly negative connotation when it found its way into novels by Ford, Forster and Hardy, and Trump would never knowingly refer to himself in those terms. No writer in English uses it now, and while word coining is certainly not off-limits (Shakespeare was prolific in this regard), we should probably not be looking here for leadership in language modification.

To me, it sounds like Trump is saying bigly most of the time. Here’s what I think happened: last year, he initially said bigly, thinking it was a real word and was called out on it by press. He found a way to double down with a “clean out your ears, stupid,” stance on the issue, and now partially swallows his “g” whenever he says it, exactly halfway between the phrase and the quasi-word.

We are safe as far as bigly becoming a part of the language, as popular culture utterances of various kinds sometimes do. I predict that this officially abjured piece of Trump misspeak will not be followed into the dark by enough American writers for the word bigly to become minted. The way words work their way into usage is through repeated use, traditionally through newspapers, though more recently web, radio and television, and as soon as Trump is done, this word will be done as well.