Wall Street big

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"Wall Street big, 49, killed by shark while diving in Costa Rica", Fox News (N.Y. Post) 11/4/2017:

A 49-year-old Wall Street private equity manager was killed by a tiger shark while diving with a group off a Costa Rican island, according to officials.

This use of big as a noun is nothing new — the OED gives a "N. Amer. colloq." sense for big cited back to 1833, glossed as "A person who or thing which is big; spec. an important or influential person, a ‘big shot’", including another similar headline from 1972:

1833   W. Burton District School as it Was xv. 97   Now come the Bigs from behind the writing benches.
1948   Law & Contemp. Probl. 13 651   It is the ‘smalls’ who will lose customers to the ‘bigs’.
1972   N.Y. Daily News 20 July 14 (heading)    Mob big denies tie to Sinatra.

Of course there's a general pattern in English of using adjectives as nouns. But there are some complicated issues about generic versus specific, definite vs. indefinite, and singular vs. plural. Thus it's normal to have things like

[link] We are all self-made, but only the successful will admit it.

where "the successful" means "successful people". But we don't expect to see "Only a successful will admit it", or "Yesterday I met a successful who didn't admit it", or "Only successfuls will admit it", or "In our survey, most of the successfuls admitted it".

With big, things are a bit different. There's a special baseball meaning for "the bigs", short for "the big leagues" (see "The world wants 'bigly'", 5/5/2016), and another special sense for big and little in the world of sororities:

[link] Being a big is more then just taking your little to parties. It is a life-time commitment.
[link] To people outside of Greek life, bigs and littles are the weirdest and maybe even stupidest concept ever.

And in the world of basketball, "bigs" are tall players typically playing center or forward positions:

[link] Coach Driscoll shares a great set of ball handling drills for bigs that are normally used with point guards.
[link] Obviously, Gay is not the type of player Popovich usually plays as a big.
[link] Bynum has been the only Laker big who has truly played hard all the time so far in the playoffs.
[link] The bigs were feeling it, as Randle, Kuzma and Lopez combined for 44 points.

In the worlds of sororities and basketball, more or less all the combinations of definiteness, specificity and plurality seem to work. But in the general sense of "an important or influential person", I don't see singular specific big (e.g. "the Wall Street big who . . .") a lot outside of headlines (and maybe not that often there). The plural bigs seems to be a bit more natural:

[link] Did people see the Wall Street bigs who made hundreds of billions building a “heads we win, tails you lose” system pay for what they did?

And we don't seem to see "the big" used in the sense of "important people in general" — or even "sorority big sisters in general" or "tall basketball players in general" — analogous to the common uses of e.g. rich, poor, old, and young:

The rich are different from you and me.
The poor are always with us.
The old are kind but the young are hot.

For those words, though, the use of generic plurals is hip and (I think) recent:

[link] I get the corruption and the MINEMINEMINE selfishness, but I admit I don't get the pure cruelty for cruelty's sake. I mean, it's one thing to not think you should have to pay to keep the poors alive, it's another to actively root for them to die.
[link] Way back in 2005, when most of us were barely born, Republicans re-learned one of the basic rules of US American politics: don’t fuck with the olds.

Someone in the comments can probably point us to research that describes (and maybe even explains) the interaction of number, definiteness, and specificity in influencing the felicity of de-adjectival nouns. It looks like Göran Kjellmer, "Lexical gaps" (Language and Computers 48, no. 1 (2003): 149-158) might be such research, but my attempts to find a copy on line lead only to "Content Not Found" pages.

The obligatory screenshot (for the originally-cited story):


  1. James Wimberley said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 7:11 am

    "Bigwig" has had a long life, considering that wigs for men went out of fashion early in the 18th century, but perhaps it's reached its sell-by date.

  2. m said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 7:54 am

    The term appeared in some of the tweets about Mnuchin and his gloved wife holding a sheet of dollar bills fresh off the press. Example:

    “What on Earth are THOSE???”

    “These are what the poors use to buy disposable ponchos and cigarettes, Snookums.”

  3. languagehat said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    You seem to be ignoring the all-important point that space is at a premium in headlines and a three-letter word will be seized on gratefully no matter what its pattern of use in the wider language. Headlinese is its own dialect and has little or nothing to do with "issues about generic versus specific, definite vs. indefinite, and singular vs. plural" in the rest of the English-language world.

    [(myl) That's what lay behind my phrase "outside of headlines" — sorry, I thought the point was obvious enough not to require statement. Evidently not.]

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    Language Hat definitely has a point. I was going to post a comment to say that the English word big is used in Italian (especially in the phrase i big, i.e. with a plural definite article) to mean "important people, major players, big shots", etc. (E.g. "i big dell'industria italiana"). But when I googled "i big", in addition to a lot of hits related to a children's book called "Am I Big or Little?", most of the Italian hits were in headlines.

  5. John Baker said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I've been seeing this use of "big" in the financial services trade press (although I don't recall seeing it in the Wall Street Journal), especially in headlines. Typically the use would be something like "SEC big does so and so" in the headline, then the article would have the person's name and actual title.

    [(myl) Makes sense, for the string-length reasons noted by languagehat. I'm just surprised that it took so long.]

  6. CNH said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    Lawyer killed by shark?

    A distinct lack of professional courtesy.

    [(myl) Private equity manager, actually, though I suppose the old joke is equally (in)appropriate for that profession as well.]

  7. Cervantes said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    I think "the poors" and "the olds" are blog speak, basically a contemporary hipster gesture. I don't know if he originated the usage, but Atrios does it all the time.

  8. Cass said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

    I am commenting here because Geoffrey K. Pullum has turned comments of of his post.

    That most recent post, however, was immensely transphobic and Geoffrey K. Pullum needs to apologize and admit he was wrong. If not, Language Log needs to take him off this blog. I've been reading this site for over a decade but this post disrespecting trans people and weeping about what an imposition it is for him to respect others' trans identities was really disgusting.

    It's a real shame because Language Log had a lot of good posts about the history of singular they in the past. But this was wrong.

    From a very, very disappointed longtime reader.

  9. Caitlin said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

    Thank you, @Cass
    I am disappointed in that post masking transphobia as a grammatical issue, and how the comments have been disabled.

  10. AntC said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

    Private equity manager, actually, …

    Heh heh. So the shark got killed by a shark.

  11. chris said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

    GKP usually disables comments, so I wouldn't read too much into that part, but I too was disappointed in his failure (or worse, refusal) to recognize how this particular linguistic innovation serves a human need.

    But perhaps our hosts would prefer if we didn't hijack this thread to compensate for the lack of one under that post… in which case it would be courteous for someone with their own blog to start a discussion there instead.

  12. ngage92 said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

    This is like dialogue from the infamous Star Wars re-translation, Backstroke of the West.

    Palpatine: You two careful, he is a big.

    Obi-Wan: Mr. Speaker, we are for the big.

  13. ngage92 said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 6:40 pm

    Oh and I wanna back up what Cass said – do the rest of the bloggers condone Pullum's transphobia? I expect better of Language Log

  14. Chad Nilep said,

    December 4, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    I have seen use of "poors" without the definite article in usage similar to the blog speak @Cervantes noted. The example I have in mind is a summary of the anti-Stratfordian* position as, "Poors can't art." Here the use of the noun 'art' as a verb as well as 'poor' as a noun shows deliberate playing with grammar. Also the fact that it is attributed to a point of view that the speaker doesn't share may occasion the non-standard form, as a form of ironic distancing and perhaps an aspersion against the soundness of the argument.

    *That is, the idea that William Shakespeare did not write the works of Shakespeare.

  15. Bloix said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 12:07 am

    "Big" as a noun in headlines is in my experience limited to tabloids. It's surprising to me to see it the WSJ.

  16. Keith said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 3:09 am

    To people outside of Greek life, bigs and littles are the weirdest and maybe even stupidest concept ever.

    Reading that, I thought the subject was literally about Hellenic culture. It reminded me of the use of the word μικρός for "boy" and by extension "trainee, apprentice", and μεγάλος to mean adult, elder.

    I imagine that the terms "little" and "big" (for new members and established members) were definite, conscious borrowings into American College Sorority culture.

    On the subject of using the term "olds": I remember that this term was widely used by young characters in Australia soap-opera Neighbours, in the early to mid 1990s, to refer to their parents.

  17. Shane said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 5:55 am

    Adding my voice to the disappointment in and anger at Pullum's last blog post.

    @chris: commenting on that post here seems more effective than starting a thread elsewhere, since it increases the likelihood that other LL contributors read it.

  18. Geoff said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 6:44 am

    @Keith, 60yo Australian here. I can confirm that in Sydney in the 1970s 'the olds' was regular student speak for one's own parents (not anyone else). 'I can't come to your party, I'll be visiting the olds that weekend.'

  19. David Nash said,

    December 5, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

    The Kjellmer paper can be seen at https://books.google.com.au/books?id=C4rrBh4UbE8C&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A9789042011366&pg=PA149#v=onepage&q&f=false (or at least the start of it).

    @Geoff: Same for me.

  20. R. Fenwick said,

    December 6, 2017 @ 4:02 am

    Tangentially on "big" is also a verb usage "big up", which I first saw on The IT Crowd ("I sort of bigged myself up to this girl"), but have since noticed elsewhere.


  21. They | Coby Lubliner's Blog said,

    December 14, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    […] the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of […]

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