Published on October 28, 2017
Although President Donald Trump’s use of cryptic language is normally understood by even the lowest common denominator, certain words suffer misconstruction due to auditory distortion. Take his use of “bigly” for example. Apparently what he’s actually saying is “big league “. In either case the assumption is that he’s using the word or phrase as an adverb, something to modify a verb, as in “We won bigly” or “I intend to do something bigly”. If what he is really saying is “big league ” it still amounts to doing something on a grand scale and therefore the sense or meaning in either case is relatively clear even if both renditions are paradoxically more poetic than prosaic.
Lots of those who heard “bigly” for the first time last night assumed it had been a neologism invented by the GOP candidate, much as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin once urged Muslims to “refudiate” plans for a mosque in lower Manhattan.
But they were wrong. “It’s a word,” says Fiona McPherson, a senior editor with the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Bigly” can mean “with great force”, she says. Thomas Hardy uses it in Far From the Madding Crowd to mean “proudly, haughtily, pompously,” McPherson adds. The OED lists an adjectival definition: “Habitable, fit to dwell in; (hence) pleasant.” The US reference book company Merriam-Webster agrees that “bigly” is a word.
“Yes, ‘bigly’ is in the dictionary,” it tweeted after the debate. It defines “bigly” as an adverb meaning “in a big manner” or, archaically, “in a swelling blustering manner”. But it also added in a separate tweet, “That’s not what Trump said.”
This puts Merriam-Webster firmly in the “big league” camp. If you listen closely enough to Trump during the debate, it’s just possible to detect a “G” sound at the end of the disputed phrase – although those unfamiliar with the candidate’s accent (picked up in the New York borough of Queens) and rapid diction may have missed it.
Trump’s purported use of the social media platform Twitter with its attendant 140-character constraint as a marketing tool is likely less tactical than he has been credited. What is more probable is that he simply thinks in such succinct terms; or to put it another way he is incapable of formulating thoughts outside the realm of popularized jargon. Relying on hackneyed street-level terminology or vulgar expressions (and goodness knows he’s cornered that market) is far easier than being creative with language. One has to wonder whether the sparsity of articulation reflects the fecundity of the mind. Therein lies the artistry of language. No matter what the medium of communication, whether language or architecture or music or painting or photography, there persists a contest between detail and simplicity. But the product has to be more than blunt to be evocative. Especially in the context of public speaking the exponent must serve up something other than raw vegetables; there’s got to be some spice. And it is no good arguing that only the facts matter. Messaging is like Mediterranean food – all about presentation.
As Liza Doolittle grasped it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Delivery counts. Among other parameters one mustn’t talk down to one’s audience. It is wrong to neglect the thirst of others for knowledge and novelty. It is after all the very freshness of ideas and terminology which popularizes those trends in the first place and whose tiresome exhaustion ultimately spells their demise. While “talking someone’s language ” can be a good starting point, in the end we must speak our own or otherwise risk becoming a tedious platitude. Being “hip” has a limited shelf-life.
Eliza is a Cockney flower girl, who comes to Professor Henry Higgins asking for elocution lessons, after a chance encounter at Covent Garden. Higgins goes along with it for the purposes of a wager: That he can turn her into the toast of elite London society. Her Cockney dialect includes words that are common among working class Londoners, such as ain’t; “I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman” said Doolittle.
The perception of language dictates the nature of its use. Even the most casual analysis of language evinces an acknowledgment that it is a tool. If language is treated as a mere screwdriver or pair of pliers then it’s utilitarian model is correspondingly meagre. If on the other hand language is fashioned a fine musical instrument its ambitions are similarly elevated. And never presume who is or is not attracted to less than austere productions. Furthermore language can dictate and predict corollary behaviour including the rules of etiquette and a level of sophistication. Even the use of the word “ain’t” became a proper uppity fashion in certain circles much as vulgar and crass expressions have today insinuated some of the most unlikely avenues. Language is not a static application. Given the defining character of language I would normally be reluctant to attribute any linguistic talent to the likes of Mr. Donald J. Trump. But in light of the recent Manchester atrocities, Trump’s denunciation of terrorists as “losers” is nonpareil. The term of course captures the rough articulation of the unemployed coal miners to whom Trump purportedly appeals; but in this instance in my opinion his choice of word is nothing less than brilliant. He certainly made a direct hit on “saying it like it is”, “talking my language”, “not afraid to say what he thinks”, etc. He further proved that sometimes robust language is far more than mere vulgarity; it can also afford disarming candidness, edgeless commentary.
The silliness about monkeys banging on a typewriter being capable of composing a Shakespearean play doesn’t amuse me in the least. Everything I know about language is that its effective use demands forethought and deliberation not mere chance.
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In fact the monkey would almost surely type every possible finite text an infinite number of times. However, the probability that monkeys filling the observable universe would type a complete work such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe is extremely low (but technically not zero). In this context, “almost surely” is a mathematical term with a precise meaning, and the “monkey” is not an actual monkey, but a metaphor for an abstract device that produces an endless random sequence of letters and symbols. One of the earliest instances of the use of the “monkey metaphor” is that of French mathematician Émile Borel in 1913, but the first instance may be even earlier.
The energy of language is not its mere repetition or regurgitation. Its defining character is its personal expression. For example a dear friend of mine once remarked about another, “He has his good faults!” Language need not be complicated or esoteric to be colourful. But its dynamism is always reflected in its individuality, mirroring the insight and personality of the champion. One mustn’t abuse the privilege of language anymore than one abuses the privilege of any other bounty of life. If that “tool” is used for manipulation or posturing in any other than an uplifting sense then it is a fraud. Like it or not we are frequently judged by our words not just our actions. This too naturally speaks to the authenticity of the user, yet another glimpse into the manner and character of the person.
Language is an admixture of so many valuable components. Even when I am reading a philosophic or scholarly analysis of some weighty concept or event I can never entirely distance myself from an appreciation of the delicate or clever use of language used to express the intricate thoughts. The more I study language and become easy and familiar with it, “each day I sail upon the ocean with a brisker gale and a more steady course”.
“—Fair wind, and blowing fresh,
Apollo sent them; quick they rear’d the mast, Then spread th’unsullied canvas to the gale, And the wind fill’d it. Roar’d the sable flood Around the bark, that ever as she went
Dash’d wide the brine, and scudded swift away.”