How ‘bigly’ came back, big time
A few years ago, it looked like the adverb bigly was sliding inexorably toward obsolescence. It had been used in English since around 1400, but after 600 years its use had dwindled, so that when the historical Oxford English Dictionary revised its entry in 2008 the word was described as ‘now rare’. Oxford’s dictionaries of current English, which generally do not include disused vocabulary, didn’t cover the word bigly at all. It seemed to be the end of an illustrious career for an adverb that had been used by such renowned authors as Thomas Malory, Horace Walpole, Thomas More, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Hardy. But then America held its 2016 presidential election, and everything changed.
One of Donald Trump’s characteristic vocabulary tics is to use the phrase big league adverbially, to mean something like ‘to a great extent, or on a large scale’. As linguist Ben Zimmer has noted, Trump has been fond of this locution since the early 1990s. And since at least 2004, when Trump uttered the words in the premiere of the Apprentice (‘I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won – big league’), big league has sometimes been mistranscribed as ‘bigly’ due to an indistinct pronunciation of the final ‘g’ and an atypical adverbial use which suggests the common –ly adverb suffix.
But this misunderstanding had no discernible impact on bigly’s declining usage until Trump began competing for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. He used big league in his announcement speech in June 2015, spawning a flurry of media coverage speculating on which word he actually said, and whether bigly was a real English word at all. By September of that year, Time Magazine had named bigly one of the ‘Buzzwords of the 2016 election’. People began to search for ‘bigly’ in our dictionary, but at that point it didn’t seem likely that it would ever qualify for inclusion – after all, Trump himself wasn’t actually saying it, and since it was often being ridiculed, it seemed unlikely to catch on. There was little evidence of genuine, contextual use of the word.
But two years later, it is clear that bigly hasn’t gone away, and it now warrants an entry in our dictionaries of contemporary English. The corpora that we analyze to follow trends in language pick up new evidence of the word being used both in mainstream publications each month, and it is even more common on social media. Initially, we saw bigly used mainly in contexts where Trump himself was being referenced, either explicitly or implicitly. Because it sounds unidiomatic to contemporary ears, bigly has humorous connotations, and was wielded by both Trump supporters (as a token of fondness) and opponents (as a form of ridicule). Those using the word often did so in a deliberate imitation of Trump’s style, combining it with other Trumpian rhetorical flourishes, like ‘yuge’ and ‘believe me!’ In the aftermath of the election, the word’s usage in the media soared, peaking in December 2016 and January 2017; it has now subsided to a more regular rate of use.
Increasingly, the word began to turn up in contexts that had nothing to do with politics or Trump at all, from a comparison of the merits of Montreal and New York City Christmas trees (‘the New York tree…won even more bigly by displaying the kind of bushy, conical perfection we demand’) to a discussion of an outfielder on the New York Yankees (‘Hicks…contributed bigly to the Yankees’ 11-6 pounding of the Cubs at Wrigley Field’). Bigly hasn’t yet entirely lost its association with Trump, but if the use of the word in non-political contexts continues, it’s possible that it eventually will. In any case, this 600-year-old word now has a new lease on life, and it looks like it will be quite some time before it can be called ‘rare’ again.
The phenomenon of a nearly dead word coming back to life isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Another new addition to Oxford Dictionaries in this update, switchel, followed a similar pattern. Switchel is a North American word referring to a type of drink made with water, vinegar, and sweetener; it had been in use since the late 18th century but wasn’t included in our dictionaries of current English because when they were compiled in the 1990s both the word and the drink itself had largely faded from use. In recent years, however, there has been a revival of old-fashioned food and drink; switchel is now sold by the bottle in Brooklyn bodegas, and use of the word has increased substantially, so that it now belongs in our dictionaries of current English, not just the historical OED. Lexicographers sometimes call this process deobsoletizing – a word that is not (yet) covered in any of Oxford’s dictionaries.
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