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US election word of the week: bigly

 © PhotoDiscIn this series we are looking at some of the language and terminology associated with the US electoral process in the run-up to the Presidential election in November. This week’s word is bigly.

For linguists, the language of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is the gift that just keeps on giving. Along with locker room banter and bad hombres, a feature of the candidate’s idiolect that has attracted a great deal of attention has been his (apparent) use of the word bigly. As Monica famously said to Rachel, and as most people agree: That’s not even a word!



It turns out that what Donald Trump has been saying is not bigly but big league. Ben Zimmer has tracked his idiosyncratic use of this phrase over more than two decades. So why the confusion? Zimmer points out that it’s partly because, while adjectival use of big-league is fairly common, to use it adverbially as Trump does is pretty unusual, and to use it after a verb phrase is very unusual indeed. This idiosyncrasy, together with Trump’s way of pronouncing the phrase, suppressing the final ‘g’, has led people to hear bigly instead.

What you’re really wondering, though, is: is bigly a word? Oxford Dictionaries Online thinks not, but there are 111 citations for it in the huge enTenTen13 corpus. Most of these are spam-related gobbledegook but I found a few genuine uses in there as well:

My kids grinned bigly and Emma said ‘Ooh! paper money!’
He was a tall man, bigly made.
Yeah, it’s bigly forgettable, but it’s a lot of fun while it’s going on.

So a word, but a very rarely used one. Who knows if this global exposure will lead to a surge in its use?

Look out for the next post in this series. You can find past posts on the language of American politics here and here, or search for other posts in this series using the tag US politics.

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Liz Potter

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