The world wants "bigly"

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Back in February, we covered the whole Donald Trump big league → bigly business at length, and if you want details, go read that post: "Bigly", 2/26/2016.

But Trump continues to say things like

We're not going to lose, we're going to start winning again,
and we're going to win big league, believe me! [link]

And journalists, along with other members of the public, continue to hear him saying "we're going to win bigly" (70,400 hits in today's Google News index…).

The Guardian was already using bigly ironically in a photo caption back in 2014:

So I reckon that it's only a matter of time before bigly is hip, at least for a while. Maybe on Election Night, bars will invite customers to come "drink bigly", whether in celebration or despair.

But does bigly have legs? The world clearly wants to believe that Trump says it. And even if he loses the fall election, I doubt that we've heard the last of him.

Update — For foreigners, and Americans who aren't familiar with this aspect of their nation's culture: in baseball there are two "major leagues", the American League and the National League, comprising 30 teams; and a hierarchy of 19 "minor leagues", comprising 246 teams.  Young players work their way up through the hierarchy of minor leagues (or at least the successful ones do), eventually reaching the "big leagues", sometimes just referred to as "the bigs":

[linkAndrew Bailey is back in the bigs. And this time, it's with his favorite team from his childhood.  The Haddon Heights native and Paul VI High School graduate was promoted to the Philadelphia Phillies and was in the bullpen for Wednesday night's game with the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

The minor leagues are not called "little", because "Little League" is an amateur activity for children.

The term major league as a modifier is often used to refer to player attributes: "major-league talent", "a major-league arm", etc. And big league is used the same way, e.g. "Roberts is evolving into a big league arm".

Unsurprisingly, metaphorical extensions of this usage are common: "traditional big-league engineering consulting firms", "big-league fashion designers", "modern big-league violin playing".

The same thing happens with major league: "major league piano playing", "a major-league meth seller", "a major-league furniture outlet".

Some people have generalized the use of big league to the role of post-verb-phrase adjunct, perhaps on the model of big time, as discussed in the earlier post ("Bigly", 2/26/2016):

[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.

But I don't think I've ever heard major league used this way. "We're going to win major league"? No, I don't think so.





  1. Ralph J Hickok said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    You mean the world largely wants to believe it.

    [(myl) I see what you did there.]

  2. Lazar said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    I think bigly has syntactic simplicity on its side: it's a regular old (though newish) adverb, as opposed to an adverbial noun phrase.

  3. Theophylact said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    You mean the world dearly wants to believe it?

  4. David L said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    It's not so surprising to me that British and Australian newspapers would hear it as 'bigly,' because 'big league' will not be a familiar term to them. But I'm honestly puzzled that so many Americans hear it the same way.

    Of course, it's possible that they want to believe that Trump is barely competent in his native language…

  5. cameron said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    I, for one, feel that "bigly" is a perfectly cromulent word.

  6. TR said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    Why isn't it a (common) word, anyway? Is there any pattern to the productivity of -ly? Largely, hugely, broadly, shortly are all fine, but bigly, longly, smally, littly are not. It doesn't seem to be a question of form, meaning, or etymology.

    [(myl) Another win for quasi-regularity…]

  7. Robert Davis said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    "Bigly" is going to be huge. Believe me.

  8. Viseguy said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    "Bigly" would seem a natural, but is it possible that it hasn't caught on because "big" itself is also an adverb? And a stronger adverb, for all that. To my ear, "think bigly", for example, doesn't sound as bold as "think big".

    "Bigly" would also work as an adjective with a respectful or patronizing connotation, like "elderly" or "portly". As in, "Our 300-pound Uncle Bob isn't fat — he's bigly."

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    Well, the question is not so much why "bigly" has not caught on but why the ancient word "bigly" fell into desuetude. Although the last OED cite myl included in the earlier post was from the 1870's, google books shows a revival around World War I. Here's one referencing a politician (from a 1916 review of an art exhibit which included a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt): "Though externals have been observed with meticulous exactitude, one never loses sight of the character of Roosevelt, which is bigly portrayed." And from the mouth of a character in a 1918 book by H.G. Wells (so one can't be sure if it's a word he would have used in his own voice): "These two places, this place, ought to be big enough, and bigly conceived enough, to irradiate our whole world with ideas."

    It separately struck me that if a current political candidate used the adverb "meanly" it might well strike us as a mistake or odd-sounding nonce coinage — unless we remembered it in the fixed phrase (famous because uttered by President Lincoln) "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth." And indeed, the google books n-gram viewer shows "meanly" in pretty much continuous decline from 1800 on. Not quite ready to be labeled arch. or obs. as of the 1860's but with the writing already on the wall.

  10. Hayley said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

    Funny. I can see this catching on…especially given the nature of Trump supporters. I wish I had listened to the clip before reading the article so I wouldn't have bias….I believe I can hear him saying big league, but I might be biased. I wonder if the newspapers just assume he's using a wrong word or slang word.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

    @ David L-

    Big league is normal in BrE.

  12. Sandy Nicholson said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 5:05 am

    @Viseguy: Surely big in Think big is not an adverbial modifier, but a complement. Semantically it’s what you are to think, not how you are to go about doing so. I recall that Apple’s old Think different slogan was criticised in some quarters for being ‘ungrammatical’ on the grounds that it ought to have been Think differently (!), but surely the point was not to encourage people to think in a different way but to have the thought that the product is different from the competition (or something along those lines). I don’t think Think big counts as evidence for big having an adverbial use that usurps bigly. Think adjective. Think complement.

    @Pflaumbaum: Is big league really normal in BrE? I’m vaguely aware of the term in relation to American sports, but I don’t know what it means exactly, so I wouldn’t call it ‘normal’ in my corner of BrE.

  13. Bart said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 6:23 am

    Big league normal in BrE? I don't think so. Any citations?

  14. Mr Punch said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    The closest British equivalent of "big league," I think, is "world-class," likewise a sports term extended to other realms – and now common in the US. "Bigly," if actually [still] in use, is the equivalent of "in a big way," which seems to me more idiomatic than Trump's "big-league."

  15. Terry Hunt said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    Though BrE myself, the term 'big league' has long been perfectly familiar to me, with the meaning "good/important enough to play in the top/big league[s]" – an obvious sporting metaphor. I would have guessed it to have a US origin, and while I have read a good deal of US fiction in the last 50 years, I'd be surprised that any British adult would not know it.

  16. C said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    Brits knowing and comprehending "big league" is one thing, and as a Brit, I don't dispute it. However, it's hardly commonplace, so David L's comment that we're more likely to mishear the phrase is still valid.

  17. Viseguy said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    @Sandy Nicholson: I dunno. You can "think big" in the sense of picturing an elephant or a skyscraper, or in the sense of having a grand design. The latter seems manner-ish to me, though reasonable minds may disagree.

  18. cameron said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    @Mr Punch: I think "top-flight" would be a closer BrE equivalent to "big-league".

  19. Sandy Nicholson said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    @Mr Punch, @cameron: As a BrE speaker, I am familiar with the use of world-class and top-flight (neither of which I’d have considered obvious Britishisms, but there you go). However, unlike @Terry Hunt, I’m not sufficiently used to the phrase big league to be able to say whether it has any kind of equivalence with the (allegedly) BrE phrases. (Perhaps I’m just not interested enough in sports in general, never mind American sports.)

    What strikes me, though, is that neither world-class nor top-flight could be dropped into Trump’s speech in place of big league:

    *and we're going to win world-class, believe me!

    *and we're going to win top-flight, believe me!

    Given my cluelessness about the Americanism (sorry!), can I ask whether you see big league as an anarthrous complement (like gold in he won gold) or as an adverbial modifier (like resoundingly in he won resoundingly)?

    [(myl) It's an adverbial adjunct, no question. The phrase "big time" is a commoner example of the pattern.]

    As an aside, a quick (and probably ill-conceived) Google n-grams comparison suggests that in AmE, big league began to outstrip bigly around 1910, while in BrE, the same happened around 1960 (and apparently big league now occurs about as often in both corpora). (There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between AmE and BrE for world class or top flight, but perhaps I’m missing something that’s skewing the numbers.)

    There are no occurrences in the Google corpora of win big league.

  20. Xmun said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 11:37 pm

    New Zealand got on fine without "bigly" in the 1970s when the government's economic policy was characterised as "Think Big". See, for example,

  21. mollymooly said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    I think many BrE speakers are familiar (often from TV and film) with the metaphorical sense of many Americanisms for which they don't understand the literal meaning: baseball examples include "take a rain check", "left field", and "major league" and big league".

    Prof Liberman's observation that "big league" but not "major league" has acquired some currency as an adverbial adjunct is the kind of native-speaker dialect knowledge that almost no NNS will have. Both "big league" and "major league" sound equally odd to me, though I can't say whether I would have misheard "bigly" had I listened to Trump before reading these LLOG posts.

  22. Julian said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    It also doesn't help that the crowd seems to start cheering after the "big lea-" part, somewhat obscuring the "-gue" (though it is there).

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