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One of the stranger moments in Monday night’s presidential debate came when Donald Trump looked Hillary Clinton in the eye to make an important point about taxation. “I’m going to cut taxes bigly. And you’re going to raise taxes bigly.”
And then Twitter had a minor explosion — smaller than the sniffling but maybe bigger than the 400-pound hacker. People wondered aloud if the Republican candidate, so often critiqued for being flexible with facts, had just made up a word.
But lexicographer Kory Stamper, who writes and edits dictionary definitions for Merriam-Webster, wants it known that bigly is a real word — even if it’s not the word Trump meant to use.
“For the record, I think Donald Trump meant to say big league,” says Stamper (who will save her thoughts on braggadocios for another moment). “He’s used this construction for the past year but it’s hard to understand because he swallows the final g in league.” Monday night was not the first time the public has reacted to Trump’s presumed use of the term. You can say it’s been a bigly deal before.
Stamper adds: “I often have trouble parsing what he’s trying to say, and I think that’s a common experience.”
But she has a message for anyone who thinks Trump made this one up. “What’s fascinating is that everyone assumes it’s not a word,” she says. “But it is.”
Stamper offers a brief history of the word bigly. This adverb came into use around 1400 and stuck around for roughly 500 years. It has been used two different ways over the centuries.
The first meaning, says Stamper, was to mean “with great force or violently or strongly.” It appeared in such fashion in the classic King Arthur tale Le Morte d’Arthur, published way back in 1485: “So roughly and so bigly that none might withstand him,” wrote Sir Thomas Malory.
The second meaning, which has been more popular in recent centuries, means “boastfully, haughtily or proudly.” Thomas Hardy put it to use in his 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd: “I don’t see that I deserve to be put upon and stormed out for nothing, concluded the small woman bigly.”
And then, about 120 years ago, the word mostly disappeared from use. Until Trump said it — or sounded like he said. Either way, that doesn’t mean it’s not a real word. “People are suddenly talking about bigly but I really don’t think we’re going to see many people use it in context,” says Stamper. “I don’t think it will stick around”
But what about big league? Not surprisingly, the lexicographer has thoughts about that, too. “In the way that Donald Trump is using it, he means a synonym of big time or completely,” says Stamper. “So when he says something like ‘I’m going to cut taxes big league — or bigly, I guess —what he means is ‘I’m going to cut taxes to a huge, excessive extent.’”
Big league began as a noun (he got called up to the big leagues) and then became an adjective (she’s a big-league talent), but Stamper says Trump is breaking new ground by using big league as an adverb.
“The whole thing is pretty funny,” she says. “I mean, whether he means big league or bigly doesn’t really matter — he’s not using an established use of either of those words in either case. A presidential debate is pretty formal and I’d think you’d want to use language that is widely understood by most of the people listening to you. But Trump doesn’t seem to do that.”
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