Linguists: Trump is really saying 'Big League,' not 'Bigly'

Donald Trump has said almost too many controversial things to count during the course of his presidential campaign, but over the last few months one turn of phrase has inspired more online curiosity than fervor: the word “bigly.”

Or was that “big league?” Or maybe both?

The phrase popped up on at least four different occasions during the three presidential debates, to the delight of many on social media. Trump has also said it at rallies and in his freewheeling stump speeches.

He has used it to describe how much he wants to cut taxes (a lot); how much he thinks his opponent, Hillary Clinton, will raise taxes (a lot); how many people he says President Barack Obama has deported (a lot); and how many more people Trump wants to deport if he wins the election (you get the idea).

But what exactly is he saying?

Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, said in an email Sunday that Trump has been saying “big league,” not “bigly.” Companies that provide transcripts of the debates have agreed with her, as have many professional linguists, who have been mulling the question for months.

Susan Lin, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, performed an audio analysis of Trump uttering the phrase during the first presidential debate in September. She visualized her findings using two tools of her trade, a wave form and a broadband spectrogram, that have been widely discussed online.

Lin said her findings “demonstrate definitively that at least in this utterance, which is from the very first presidential debate, there are three of the acoustic cues that would indicate to me a ‘G’ was produced at the end of this.”

But Trump started saying “big league” long before the first debate, according to Ben Zimmer, another linguist, who writes a column for The Wall Street Journal. Zimmer compiled a list of examples showing Trump using the phrase in public as far back as a 1993 interview with a Japanese newspaper.

Trump also used the phrase in at least two television interviews in 1999, one with CNN’s Larry King and the other on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said it again at the start of the first episode of his reality television show, “The Apprentice,” in 2004, according to Zimmer.

If Trump has been saying “big league” all this time, why do so many people think he is saying something else?

Linguistics may have an answer for that, too. Lin said the “current received wisdom” among linguists is that the widespread misunderstanding has something to do with the way Trump speaks and the unusual way he has used a phrase that many people find unfamiliar.

“It’s some combination of a lot of people not knowing the phrase ‘big league’ then also the fact that it’s an unusual place to use that phrase in a sentence,” she said. “So people are parsing it as an adverb, which would be ‘bigly.'”

The internet, of course, is not going to let social science stand in the way of a good meme.

“Bigly” has emerged as a rare moment of levity in a campaign that has been increasingly acrimonious, and the meme has caught on with both those opposed to Trump and with some of his supporters. It has also been used earnestly by some reporters who cover the campaign.

As it turns out, “bigly” is a real word. It is an acceptable adverbial use of the adjective “big,” according to Merriam-Webster, a dictionary company that has embraced social media and has tweeted witty observations about the two candidates’ elocutions throughout the campaign.

The company weighed in on the bigly vs. big league debate early on, stating a few days after the first presidential debate that Trump’s pronunciation of “big league” has simply been misunderstood. (It wrote a whole blog post on the subject.)

But it did take issue with Trump’s grammar. It agreed with the linguistic community that he tends to use “big league” as an adverb even though it is usually used as an adjective or a figurative noun. Trump’s usage of the phrase, it said, “is not often encountered.”

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