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Jim Newell, "Is Donald Trump’s Favorite Term Bigly or Big League? You Make the Call", Slate 9/24/2015:

What is that word—or words—that Donald Trump throws into the middle of basically everything he says?

The consensus around the LLOG water cooler was "big league", but I don't think we ever wrote about it. The Federal News Service transcript of last night's verbal brawl agrees:

I will say this. Mitt Romney looked like a fool when he delayed and delayed and delayed. And Harry Reid baited him so beautifully. And Mitt Romney didn’t file his return until a September 21st of 2012, about a month-and-a-half before the election. And it cost him big league.

But lots of people are convinced it's "bigly":

A sample of other Trump "big league"/"bigly" performances is here:

I continue to hear all of these as "big league", though it's also possible to hear (some of) them as "bigly" given the strong initial-syllable stress, the (sometimes) unreleased final [g], and the short second syllable.

And in fact, bigly has a fine pedigree, according to the OED. In the sense "With great force; firmly, violently; (also) stoutly, strongly", it goes back to the 15th century:

c1400  (?c1380)    Patience l. 321   Þe barrez of vche a bonk ful bigly me haldes.
a1470   Malory Morte Darthur (Winch. Coll. 13) (1990) I. 416   So rowghly and so bygly that there was none myght withstonde hym.

And a sense glossed as "Loudly, boastfully; proudly, haughtily, pompously", we're given

a1500   Sidrak & Bokkus (Laud) (1999) II. 9225   Tonge begynneþ to waxe biglye And of his youthe he bosteth an hye.
1532   T. More Confut. Tyndale in Wks. 397/1   And bereth it out bigly wt shameles deuelyshe heresie.
1585   Abp. E. Sandys Serm. v. 89   Goliah thought bigly of himselfe.
1596   W. Warner Albions Eng. (rev. ed.) ix. xlvi. 218   Oftentimes Authoritie lookes biglier than a Bull.
1669   G. Burnet Modest Conf. between Conformist & Non-conformist (ed. 2) iii. sig. D1v,   You talked bigly of jus divinum yet you minded it as little as any could.
1693   Dryden tr. Juvenal Satires 197   Bigly to look, and barb'rously to speak.
1744   Johnson Deb. in Gentleman's Mag. Feb. 69   Talking bigly indeed of vindicating foreign Rights.
1846   W. S. Landor Citation & Exam. Shakespere in Wks. II. 299   He spoke as bigly and fiercely as a soaken yeoman at an election feast.
1874   T. Hardy Far from Madding Crowd I. xxx. 331   ‘I don't see that I deserve to be put upon and stormed at for nothing!’ concluded the small woman, bigly.

So I'm sorry to conclude that Mr. Trump is not trying to bring back this estimable word. Rather, he's pushing an adverbial-adjunct extension of the phrase "big league".

This phrase started in the late 19th century as a way of referring to "the highest-ranking league in professional baseball, or, later, in other sports":

1882   Fort Wayne (Indiana) Daily Gaz. 8 Oct. 7/6   He will have a pitcher and catcher from one of the big league clubs.
1899   Sporting News 25 Mar. 1/3   This season marks an epoch in the matter of spring training for big League ball tossers.

And it soon acquired the obvious extended sense "of the highest rank; major, important, notable":

1917   N.Y. Tribune 21 Aug. 9/1   If it had put forward a big league candidate the interest in the campaign might have diverted public attention from the war.
1947   Time 14 Apr. 66/3   They announced a prize book contest baited with enough cash to make big-league authors sit up and take notice.

I'm not sure when "big league" was first used as a post-verbal adjunct, but it follows in the footsteps of "big time" in the sense "to a great degree, on a large scale, extremely", or which the OED has citations back to 1957:

1957   ‘E. Lacy’ Room to Swing vi. 93   The New York City police are good, big-time.
1983   Washington Post (Nexis) 27 Nov. c1   It's not like we're a powerhouse club that's rolling it up big-time.
1987   D. F. Wallace Broom of Syst. 416,   I was big-time sad.
2006   Metro (Toronto) 11 Oct. 37/1   Wow, some of these people look like they just got beat down big time.

And this adverbial "big time" had its moment in the political spotlight (M.J. Stephey, "Bush's Major-League Mistake", Time 3/27/2012):

During the 2000 election campaign, microphones caught George W. Bush and Dick Cheney trashing Adam Clymer, a reporter for the New York Times. In a hushed whisper, Bush described Clymer as a "major-league asshole," to which Dick Cheney responded, "Yeah, big time." Later, Bush explained: "I said what I said. I'm a plainspoken fellow."

And adverbial "big league", in the same sense"to a great degree, on a large scale, extremely", has been around for a while. I'd be surprised if it didn't go back to the first half of the 20th century, though the earliest printed citations I've been able to find are much more recent, e.g.

[link 2004]: No way were Millennium's psychotherapies paying for even a fifth of it. Several investigative reporters had shown that. Outside interests had to be financing it big-league, especially given the Hard Times, and they'd require some kind of payoff.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    It seems to me that the usages of "big league" often overlap with those of "big time".

  2. Roscoe said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    That Clymer incident cost the president bush league.

  3. David L said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    I hear 'big league' too.

    It also strikes me that although Trump doesn't seem to have a large vocabulary — or if he does, it's not for public consumption — he is nevertheless a pretty fluent speaker. He doesn't stumble or hesitate much, and he doesn't resort to making up words or mangling grammar — unlike the two George Bushes (or should that be the two Georges Bush?).

  4. Laura Morland said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    The citations to "bigly" are cute, but superfluous. I watched as much as I could stand (with my eyes closed) of the video posted by Jim Newell, and I definitely heard the final "g" of "big league," every time.

    I agree with Victor Mair. To me, the definitions of "big league" — which is not in my vocabulary — and "big time" — which is, although fading — are pretty much identical.

    As for David L's comment, perhaps Trump's "fluency" stems from never having had to worry about a possible negative consequence of anything he says? Fame and fortune have been good to Trump, and so has his candidacy for President.

    Thus far.

  5. Willem J. de Reuse said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    Trump is an entertaining speaker and showman, one has to say that much. The word 'bigly' struck me too, it was the most interesting thing said in the whole debate. And that is what he said, it did not sound like 'big league' at all.

  6. David L said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    @Laura Morland: I don't know where fluency of speech comes from, but I've known plenty of very smart people who are terrible off-the-cuff speakers, and plenty of not-so-smart people who can tell a tale like nobody's business.

    I suppose in Trump's case that his absolute confidence in what he is saying, no matter how foolish and erroneous, contributes to the way he speaks. But after all, the Bushes grew up in a similarly privileged environment, and still seem to have a family trait of inarticulacy.

  7. Willem J. de Reuse said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Let this be a lesson for all of us. When I listened to the debate, I heard 'bigly', and there was no doubt in my mind. Hence I wrote the message above. Then, just to be safe, I listened to the Youtube again, and this time I clearly heard 'it cost him big league'. So it is 'big league', after all. Oh boy, how easily our ears are deceived! It makes sense, a guy like Trump is more likely to use an colorful idiom like 'big league', than a somewhat unusual word like 'bigly'…

  8. Faldone said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    Whether or not I hear a final /g/ I'm mostly hearing the final vowel as /ɪ/ and not as the /iː/ I would expect in league.

  9. Walter Underwood said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    The final 'g' is clearly there, even in the phone call, but it does sound like "biglig". I think it is the vowel that is throwing people off.

  10. Rodger C said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    I grew up hearing sports announcers discussing the Philadelphia Iggles and their place in the Lig.

  11. Lazar said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    @Roger C: Not to be confused with the Stillers.

  12. Rubrick said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

    It souns very much like "biglig" to me. Perhaps he's misremembering Watership Down.

  13. Russinoff said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    From Timothy Egan's op-ed piece in today's Times:

    "The shouting, the eye-rolling, the repetition of nonsensical pablum, the odd words (“bigly” when he meant hugely) — it was all there."

  14. Guy said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

    The second [g] sounds quite clear to me. I'm a little surprised that there's still debate after both possibilities are brought out.I can see how other people are hearing [ɪ] and not [i], but it sounds to me at best ambiguous what phoneme it corresponds to. Anyway, "bigly" is expected to have /i/ for Trump too. Can we get some spectrogram a for a few Trump /i/'s and /ɪ/'s

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    Presumably things develop bigly when they are embiggened.

  16. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 28, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

    Trump's social media director is mimicking his boss's use of post-verbal "big league".

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