‘Bigly’ Is Huge

maxresdefaultYes, it didn’t take long for a reader of my Friday post to recognize what I meant when I hinted about my favorite word of the year 2016: ”It’s big.” Betsy Smith, retired from Cape Cod Community College, correctly deduced that my choice, for now at least, is bigly.

Why bigly? Because it contains so much in so little. It has a long history, yet until now was nearly obsolete. Its etymology is disputed. And most important, it expresses the state of mind of the winning candidate for the U.S. presidency, Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Donald Trump.

While still a candidate, at the first presidential debate in September, Trump summed up his disagreement with Hillary Clinton: “I am going to cut taxes bigly, and you are going to raise taxes bigly. End of story.”

That wasn’t the first time he used bigly. In May he told an audience of supporters, “We’re going to win bigly.” In June, he warned about Iran attacking Iraq “and they’re taking it over bigly.” He also said of Obamacare that it was about to kick in really bigly.

Trump wasn’t the first to use bigly in the 21st century, though. Rush Limbaugh, for example, was heard to use it in October 2006 in a radio broadcast, in an almost-apology for questioning Michael J. Fox’s Parkinsonism: “All I’m saying is I’ve never seen him the way he appears in this commercial for Claire McCaskill. So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commericial as an act, especially since people are telling me they have seen him this way on other interviews and in other television appearances.”

A year later Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel Cold Mountain was published, with a bigly in the historical context of the U.S. Civil War: “The man was bigly made and he beat at the sack with a broken-off hoe handle, laying into it so that the dust flew. He talked at the sack, cursing it, as if it were the chief impediment to his living a life of ease and content.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary readily shows, however, bigly is anything but new. With the meaning “with great force; firmly, violently; (also) stoutly, strongly” it has been attested in the English language since about 1400. With the related meaning “loudly, boastfully;  proudly, haughtily, pompously,” it has been in English since 1500. The OED‘s most recent citation for the first definition is 1913, for the second 1927, and it’s labeled rare.

Google Books finds a rare example in Cosmo Hamilton’s 1919 novel Who Cares? A Story of Adolescence: “Tootles made a long arm and put her hand on Joan’s. ‘In that case, make it up bigly, dearie,’ she said earnestly. ‘Don’t be afraid to give. There are precious few real men about and lots of women to make a snatch at them.’” And later, “Yes, she [Joan] would make up for it, bigly, bigly, and he should be happy, this boy-man who was a knight.”

That label rare, and the lack of widespread use in the 20th century, suggest that for 21st-century users bigly is something of a new invention after all. And that makes it possible that, instead of simply adding the adverb suffix -ly to the adjective big, it could instead be a shortened version of the expression big league used adverbially in the sense “big-time, high class,” as attested in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang with examples from 1919 to 1991, the latter from CNN in 1991: “This guy went absolutely big-league bonkers.”

Or maybe both of the possible etymologies encouraged Mr. Trump to use it so bigly.

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