Words on the radar: US election edition
The 2016 US presidential election may not be a particularly edifying spectacle from the perspective of civics, but as a driver of lexical innovation it has been exceptionally rich. The discourse around the campaign has produced or popularized many new words and usages not hitherto included in Oxford Dictionaries. These words are now on our lexicographers’ radar, but whether they are ultimately entered into the dictionary will depend not only on evidence of how frequently they are used, but also an assessment of how likely they are to have a continuing impact. This is a challenge in assessing topical items of vocabulary, which current events may render suddenly obsolete (for instance, the Bernie bro of the Democratic primary). Whether these words become permanently ensconced in our vocabulary or vanish overnight may depend in part on what transpires on November 9th.
The -er suffix has taken on a new use in recent years to refer depreciatively to purveyors of conspiracy theories. The 2008 election birthed the birthers, who questioned President Obama’s birthplace (and hence his legal qualification to be president, an office which in the United States is restricted to ‘natural-born citizens’). Then came the deathers, those who questioned whether Osama bin Laden was truly dead, and the truthers, a more general term for believers in fringe theories, used especially for those who question the official account of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The 2016 election has brought attention to a new brand of conspiracy theorist, mockingly dubbed healthers—people who believe that Hillary Clinton is concealing a grave illness. The word healther got a boost in September, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, but our files show it being used in this way by 2014, before this interminable election campaign had even begun.
The term alternative right, alt-right for short, was coined in 2008 by the president of a white supremacist organization as a name for a political movement combining a range of right-wing ideologies with a racialized variety of nationalism. The shortened form, which sounds innocuously reminiscent of a 1990s-era musical subgenre, belies the extreme positions espoused by the movement. The word alt-right didn’t begin to appear in mainstream publications until last year, and it began to spike in our tracking corpus in July, amid discussion of the alt-right’s support for the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Among supporters of the alt-right, the neologism cuckservative is used as an insult for mainstream conservatives. The source of -servative in this portmanteau is obvious, but where does cuck– come from? It is shortened from the word cuckold, a derisive term for a man whose wife is unfaithful which arose in English in the 13th century and is relatively uncommon in modern use. As a modern insult, cuck conveys a metaphor of emasculation, but its forcefulness is also enhanced by the fact that it resembles no fewer than three taboo four-letter words in English, and thus carries a strong whiff of obscenity. Cuck is frequently used alone as an insult, and has found its way into additional formations, such as cucktarian, a pejorative term for a libertarian, and libcuck, for a progressive.
Lexicographers don’t pay attention merely to new words; new usages of existing words are also an important part of tracking language change. This includes not only new meanings, but also grammatical changes, such as a functional shift from one part of speech to another. One of the most prominent gaffes by Hillary Clinton this year was her description of some Trump supporters as belonging to a ‘basket of deplorables’. Deplorable (‘deserving strong condemnation; completely unacceptable’) has been used as an adjective in English since the 17th century, but its use as a noun is very unusual; the historical Oxford English Dictionary records a single example, defined in plural form as ‘deplorable ills’, from 1828, and the noun isn’t covered in Oxford Dictionaries at all. Clinton’s characterization of voters as deplorables was widely criticized, but some Trump supporters quickly reclaimed it as a self-designation; it now appears on T-shirts and in Twitter bios as a badge of pride.
big league adv.
Deplorable isn’t the only high-profile example of function shift in the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s frequent adverbial use of big league (as in ‘we are cutting them [i.e., taxes] big league for the middle class’) has been attracting attention since the Republican primaries. Big league was first used in its original baseball sense in the 1880s, but in the early 20th century it took on an extended use to mean ‘major, important, notable’. Interestingly, this shift appears to have begun in political contexts, as in this 1917 example: ‘If it had put forward a big league candidate the interest in the campaign might have diverted public attention from the war’ (N.Y. Tribune, 21 Aug. 1917). Adjectival big league is common, but the adverbial use favored by Trump (which might be glossed as ‘greatly’) is unusual, which is probably why many people have misheard it as the more obviously adverbial ‘bigly’. However, the Trump campaign has confirmed that the Republican candidate is indeed saying big league. Adverbial big league is not covered in Oxford Dictionaries yet, but if we collect significant evidence of it catching on and being used more widely in the English-speaking world, we might someday amend our entry to include it.