Whether it’s buildings or walls or deportations, Donald Trump likes largeness. When describing scale, he’s given to an odd descriptor: To the untrained ear, it sounds like “bigly.” But, as NPR and others have noted, it’s not: At a weekend event in Virginia Beach, he said that he would “cut taxes big league, cut regulations even bigger league.”
If you hear bigly — as I did, before talking with a lexicographer this morning — you’re not alone. As Slate noted last fall, reporters’ transcriptions are all over the place: Iran is invading Iraq, “and they’re taking it over bigly,” while “Mexico is ripping off the United States big league, and we have to do something about it.” The third presidential debate saw “bigly donald trump” as one of the most popular set of Google search terms.
Yes, Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks has gone on record saying it’s “big league.” But it wasn’t until this weekend, that phoneticians — the scientists who study how people speak — found convincing evidence that, indeed, Trump is saying “big league.” Some fancy tools were used: University of California, Berkeley, linguist Susan Lin mapped Trump’s enunciation in a spectrogram, below. She found “strong evidence” that Trump is saying “big league” because of the presence of a soft, though difficult to detect, g at the end of league. Lin’s careful to note that she can’t say for sure that he never said “bigly” in his life, but in the samples she’s collected, it’s “big league.”
But even more than his soft enunciation, the syntax that Trump uses is super individual — as befits the candidate — and it explains why even if Trump knows he’s saying “big league,” you nonetheless hear “bigly.” Linguist Ben Zimmer observes at Language Log that Trump has been using “big league” for decades. He traces the first such usage to 1993, with Trump being quoted as saying “these people are hurting big league” while describing his friends in real estate in Japan. While publicly mulling a presidential run for the Reform Party in 1999, he told Larry King that “Germany is ripping us off big league; Saudi Arabia is ripping us off big league.” Then, in the very first episode of The Apprentice, which aired in January 2004, he declared, “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.”
Zimmer notes Trump uses “big league” as a “post-verbal adjunct” adverb, meaning that it comes after the word or phrase that it’s modifying, thus “ripped off big league.” More common is using “big league” as an adjective before a noun, like the Trump campaign’s #BigLeagueTruth campaign. Zimmer reports that he’s occasionally come across “big league” modifying an adjective, as in “big-league weird.” Like so much of Trump, the adverbial “big league” is particular to the man: When I reached out to Kory Stamper, an editor and lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, she told me over direct message that she couldn’t find a single instance of the adverbial “big league” in the dictionary’s database of citations.
This is why you hear “big league” as “bigly”: Your inner grammarian wants to understand it as an adverb and so fits it into the “-ly” form that adverbs tend to have. In skimming over his enunciation on that g, Trump is doing something that all native English speakers do: a process called elision, or running your words together. If you don’t elide, Stamper notes, you sound “like a robot,” enunciating every single phoneme: (forget-about-it vs. fuggababoutit). “Our ears and brains ‘learn’ to fill in the gaps,” Stamper says. “Trump’s use of it in the adverb position, clearly modifying a verb, doesn’t mesh with what we know about other uses of ‘big league,’” Stamper explains. “That means that your brain scrambles to find something to fit that spot. That combined with that half-swallowed ‘g’ at the end of ‘big league’ is probably why people hear ‘bigly.’ And once you hear it, you can’t stop hearing it.”
In that Virginia Beach video, Trump says “big league” and then “bigger league,” but if you’ve been hearing him say “bigly” this whole time, you’ll hear “biggerly.” “Bigger league” is also unfamiliar to people — Stamper says that Merriam-Webster only has a couple records of its use — and Trump is still using it in that eccentric adverbial form, so naturally it’s misheard.
Then there’s the absurdity of “bigger league” itself. If you’re talking about the big leagues, you’re speaking to the highest ranks of a given pursuit, whether that’s Major League Baseball versus the minor leagues or Broadway versus community theater. “It does seem to fit Trump’s speech patterns,” Stamper says, “to make something that’s already an absolute even more absoluter.”