The history of Trumpian "big league" (now even bigger league!)

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Donald Trump, as we have discussed a few times now, is fond of using big league as a post-verbal adjunct, though it's often misheard as bigly. (See: "Bigly," 2/26/16; "The world wants 'bigly'," 5/5/16; "Don't let 'bigly' catch on," 10/18/16.) On the night of Wednesday's presidential debate, UC Berkeley's Susan Lin helpfully shared a spectrogram of the relevant utterance from Trump, demonstrating the "velar pinch" associated with the final /g/ of big league. The spectrogram first appeared in the Facebook group Friends of Berkeley Linguists and then was tweeted by Jennifer Nycz and Tara McAllister Byun.

After it circulated on Twitter, Lin's spectrogram then got incorporated into news stories from Mashable, Thrillist, Mic, and Washington Post's The Fix, presented as the authoritative word on a subject that has clearly been on a lot of people's minds. (Philip Bump, in his piece for The Fix, noted that on the night of the debate, "bigly donald trump" came in third among all Trump-related Google searches, after "donald trump iraq" and "donald trump iraq war.")

Now that the phoneticians have spoken, this is a good time to look at the history of Trump's peculiar usage, which shows no sign of abating. Just yesterday, at a rally at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Trump ratcheted up big league by pairing it with even bigger league — though of course many people heard it as even biggerly.

I looked through some news databases to trace Trump's growing penchant for big league. First, let's turn the clock back to 1993, when Japan's economy was in the midst of a collapse. In August of that year, Trump, with his soon-to-be-wife Marla Maples, visited Tokyo on an Asian trip, where he was quoted as following:

I have a lot of real estate friends in Japan, many of whom I have seen (this trip), and these people are hurting big league, and they think it is going to get a lot worse. (The Daily Yomiuri, Aug. 19, 1993)

This is the earliest example I've been able to find of Trumpian big league. The next example I turned up is from 1997, in an AP article about Trump canceling plans for an addition to his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. Trump was irritated that the New Jersey state government had offered incentives to a rival casino developer, including the construction of a tunnel link.

We're doing that because we think the state of New Jersey is being ripped big league. The taxpayers are being hurt badly by this tunnel transaction. (Associated Press, Mar. 20, 1997)

Two years later in 1999, Trump used big league in a high-profile media appearance: his announcement on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee to consider a run on the Reform Party ticket.

The fact is, that the world is ripping off this country: Germany is ripping us off big league; Saudi Arabia is ripping us off big league; France, I mean, they're the worst team player I've ever seen in my life. (CNN, Oct. 8, 1999)

Later that month, he repeated the formulation on NBC's "Meet the Press."

I think if we go back and negotiate with Japan and Germany and lots of countries, France, that are just ripping us–Saudi Arabia–you look at these deficits–that are just ripping us big league… I mean, they're just ripping us, and they're ripping us big league. ("Meet the Press," Oct. 24, 1999)

Trump never did end up running for president in 2000, though his big league usage would continue. In early 2004, Trump's competitive reality show "The Apprentice" debuted on NBC, and in a voiceover at the beginning of the first episode, he used big league again.

But it wasn't always so easy. About thirteen years ago, I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt, but I fought back and I won big league. ("The Apprentice," Season 1, Episode 1, Jan. 8, 2004)

Even then, there was confusion about Trump's turn of phrase, as he was quoted in some reviews as saying "I won bigly" (e.g. here and here).

A decade later, when Trump was once again flirting with a presidential run, he spoke at the 2014 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). And once again, big league was in his arsenal.

For those that don't understand devaluation, what they are saying is basically, we're ripping you big league… And believe me, they're taking our jobs, and they're taking them big league. (C-SPAN, Mar. 6, 2014)

But it wasn't until he announced he would be running in the Republican primaries that Trump's big league got much attention. In his announcement speech on June 16, 2015, he used it twice.

Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they're taking it over big league. (YouTube)

But Obamacare kicks in in 2016, really big league. It is going to be amazingly destructive. (YouTube)

The misperception of Trump's big league as bigly started in earnest with that speech, with a Dictionary.com blog post noting a spike in online searches for bigly. In September 2015, Slate's Jim Newell wrote about the confusion and got campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks to confirm that Trump was indeed saying big league.

More recently, the Trump campaign has sought to capitalize on the phrase with the #bigleague hashtag. As Lauren Squires noted, you can even get it on a shirt or button.

And even though the candidate almost always uses big league in an adverbial fashion, the Trump campaign has also made use of the adjectival form in its #BigLeagueTruth Team, which enlisted supporters to fact-check Hillary Clinton in the debates.

Adjectival big-league is not uncommon, however; it's much harder to find examples of it used adverbially. I've come across big-league used occasionally to modify an adjective, as in this example from Stephen King's 1986 novel It (cited in Green's Dictionary of Slang):

The first time I came in contact with anything that summer that was weird—I mean really big-league weird—was in George's room, with you.

But it's the use of big league as a post-modifier for a verb phrase that is particular to Trump-ese. As Mark Liberman noted, many speakers of American English use big-time in that role, but big league is far less expected. That peculiarity of usage, along with Trump's tendency not to release the final /g/, plays a large part in people perceiving what he says as bigly.

(I had more to say about big league vs. bigly in an NYU panel on political rhetoric on Wednesday, before the final debate — video is here.)

Update: More on big league vs. bigly from NPR here. And welcome, readers of the New York Times! (And Wonkette, and New York Magazine…)



17 Comments

  1. cameron said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    Trump's use of "ripping", rather than "ripping off", in the quotations above, is another example of his tendency to use oddly mutated forms of common American idioms.

    I realize the adjective form "Trumpian" is inevitably going to be the most popular, but I prefer, and think this subject deserves, the form "Trumply".

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    There's "It failed big-league back then" at this comment on a blog post in 2014, so after Trump started using it but before the present campaign. I had a lot of trouble finding other examples.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    @Jerry: Mark Liberman found an example from a 2004 book ("Outside interests had to be financing it big-league…"), and now I see there's another example in that same book ("It can get really cold, and then warm up big league when a chinook wind blows"). But yes, it's a challenge finding post-verbal instances that are not from Trump himself or possibly inspired by him.

  4. Chris Alterio said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    All that was needed was to survey people in his geographic region to find out that 'big league' is a commonly used slang expression. I grew up in the NYC metro area and I never misunderstood what he was saying. The irony is listening to would-be culture warriors who say that mocking other English variants are some form of prejudice or expression of cultural hate. Agree with Trump or not – this exposes the hypocrisy of some critics – big league.

  5. Chinook Man said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    @cameron, the domain name trump.ly hasn't been taken yet… :)

  6. Zeppelin said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    Has anyone done a comparison of the use of sports analogies between Trump and Clinton? Those are a conspicuously irritating feature of Manager Speak in my mind. The quotes above also have Trump admonishing nations for not being "team players", for a start.

  7. Ari Corcoran said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

    I know this is not entirely relevant, but Big League has been published in Australia since 1974 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_League] and relates to rugby league football, as is a brand of chewing gum associated with the game. From memory, "big league" has been used adjectively in Australia for a long time, and not just with respect to sport.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    October 23, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    There's that "major-league asshole from the New York Times" identified by Bush Jr. in 2000.

    Trump's tendency not to release the final /g/

    Ah, that explains a lot!

  9. Johan P said,

    October 24, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    Not sure if it's relevant, but its related antonym, "bush-league", is well attested in metaphorical use for over a century.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 24, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    I think that most people would use "big time" adverbially in the places where Trump says "big league".

  11. Stewart MacAllister said,

    October 24, 2016 @ 2:46 pm

    @Chris Alterio: One thing I notice about your usage is the preceding hyphen "- big league", indicating a short pause before the adverb. I find the pause makes it more comprehensible, changing it from a normal adverb into some kind of adverbial phrase or adjunct, or even a comment on the preceding sentence. On the other hand, maybe a pause just serves to add extra intensity, e.g.:
    "I'ts bleeding badly" vs. "It's bleeding – badly"
    "It's bleeding big time" vs. "It's bleeding – big time"

    "It's bleeding big league" remains totally unacceptable to me, with or without the pause (I'm a western Canadian). Certainly a sociolinguist needs to look into adverbial "big league" usage in NYC, and probably also in neighbouring NJ.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 12:40 am

    I strongly believe that the mishearing as 'bigly' was prompted by pronunciations, not with a plosive, but with a fricative. Since the velar (or palatal) fricative is not a phoneme of English it has traditionally been ignored. See Geoff Lindsey's blog: http://englishspeechservices.com/words-of-the-week/bigly/.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    I wonder if anyone will start saying "bigly" due to (mis)hearing Trump.

  14. jorge said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

    i don't get how people confuse bigly with big league. i presume this started from people who's first language is not english. if you're born and raised in the states and english speaking their is nothing that sounds like big league. maybe we could confuse it with a bitly but what the hell is a bigly?

  15. James Kabala said,

    October 26, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

    Jorge: People know perfectly well that "bigly" is not a standard English word – they are mocking Trump for using what they think is a made-up word (just as Warren Harding long ago was mocked for saying "normalcy"). Since the phrase Trump is actually using, "big league," is also being used in a not-quite-standard way, and being poorly enunciated as well, the confusion persists.

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    Jorge: I'm not sure why you say the two sound nothing alike. "Big league" and "bigly" are identical up to the final [g], which, if it's not released, is basically silence. If the only distinguishing factor is the brief change in quality leading to the final closure of the [g], it's easy to see how that might get overlooked, especially in the noisy environment of a Trump rally. So, yeah, "bigly" is not a word, but it's not an unnatural mishearing. I've asked people "you know that he's saying 'big league,' right?" and have been met with complete incredulity. A lot of people quite honestly think he's saying "bigly."

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    October 28, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    Actually, thinking about it, the other idiosyncracy of Trump's pronunciation is the stress pattern. Where an adjectival use would naturally (in my dialect) have stress on both words ("That is a BIG LEAGUE fastball"), Trump de-stresses league to the point where it sounds like a clitic or even a suffix ("They are ripping us BIGleague"). So league is short and unstressed and even more like -ly.

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