Donald Trump, as we have discussed a few times now, is fond of using big league as a post-verbal adjunct, though it's often misheard as bigly. (See: "Bigly," 2/26/16; "The world wants 'bigly'," 5/5/16; "Don't let 'bigly' catch on," 10/18/16.) On the night of Wednesday's presidential debate, UC Berkeley's Susan Lin helpfully shared a spectrogram of the relevant utterance from Trump, demonstrating the "velar pinch" associated with the final /g/ of big league. The spectrogram first appeared in the Facebook group Friends of Berkeley Linguists and then was tweeted by Jennifer Nycz and Tara McAllister Byun.
After it circulated on Twitter, Lin's spectrogram then got incorporated into news stories from Mashable, Thrillist, Mic, and Washington Post's The Fix, presented as the authoritative word on a subject that has clearly been on a lot of people's minds. (Philip Bump, in his piece for The Fix, noted that on the night of the debate, "bigly donald trump" came in third among all Trump-related Google searches, after "donald trump iraq" and "donald trump iraq war.")
Now that the phoneticians have spoken, this is a good time to look at the history of Trump's peculiar usage, which shows no sign of abating. Just yesterday, at a rally at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Trump ratcheted up big league by pairing it with even bigger league — though of course many people heard it as even biggerly.
I looked through some news databases to trace Trump's growing penchant for big league. First, let's turn the clock back to 1993, when Japan's economy was in the midst of a collapse. In August of that year, Trump, with his soon-to-be-wife Marla Maples, visited Tokyo on an Asian trip, where he was quoted as following:
I have a lot of real estate friends in Japan, many of whom I have seen (this trip), and these people are hurting big league, and they think it is going to get a lot worse. (The Daily Yomiuri, Aug. 19, 1993)
This is the earliest example I've been able to find of Trumpian big league. The next example I turned up is from 1997, in an AP article about Trump canceling plans for an addition to his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. Trump was irritated that the New Jersey state government had offered incentives to a rival casino developer, including the construction of a tunnel link.
We're doing that because we think the state of New Jersey is being ripped big league. The taxpayers are being hurt badly by this tunnel transaction. (Associated Press, Mar. 20, 1997)
Two years later in 1999, Trump used big league in a high-profile media appearance: his announcement on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee to consider a run on the Reform Party ticket.
The fact is, that the world is ripping off this country: Germany is ripping us off big league; Saudi Arabia is ripping us off big league; France, I mean, they're the worst team player I've ever seen in my life. (CNN, Oct. 8, 1999)
Later that month, he repeated the formulation on NBC's "Meet the Press."
I think if we go back and negotiate with Japan and Germany and lots of countries, France, that are just ripping us–Saudi Arabia–you look at these deficits–that are just ripping us big league… I mean, they're just ripping us, and they're ripping us big league. ("Meet the Press," Oct. 24, 1999)
Trump never did end up running for president in 2000, though his big league usage would continue. In early 2004, Trump's competitive reality show "The Apprentice" debuted on NBC, and in a voiceover at the beginning of the first episode, he used big league again.
But it wasn't always so easy. 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. ("The Apprentice," Season 1, Episode 1, Jan. 8, 2004)
Even then, there was confusion about Trump's turn of phrase, as he was quoted in some reviews as saying "I won bigly" (e.g. here and here).
A decade later, when Trump was once again flirting with a presidential run, he spoke at the 2014 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). And once again, big league was in his arsenal.
For those that don't understand devaluation, what they are saying is basically, we're ripping you big league… And believe me, they're taking our jobs, and they're taking them big league. (C-SPAN, Mar. 6, 2014)
But it wasn't until he announced he would be running in the Republican primaries that Trump's big league got much attention. In his announcement speech on June 16, 2015, he used it twice.
Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they’re taking it over big league. (YouTube)
But Obamacare kicks in in 2016, really big league. It is going to be amazingly destructive. (YouTube)
The misperception of Trump's big league as bigly started in earnest with that speech, with a Dictionary.com blog post noting a spike in online searches for bigly. In September 2015, Slate's Jim Newell wrote about the confusion and got campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks to confirm that Trump was indeed saying big league.
More recently, the Trump campaign has sought to capitalize on the phrase with the #bigleague hashtag. As Lauren Squires noted, you can even get it on a shirt or button.
And even though the candidate almost always uses big league in an adverbial fashion, the Trump campaign has also made use of the adjectival form in its #BigLeagueTruth Team, which enlisted supporters to fact-check Hillary Clinton in the debates.
Adjectival big-league is not uncommon, however; it's much harder to find examples of it used adverbially. I've come across big-league used occasionally to modify an adjective, as in this example from Stephen King's 1986 novel It (cited in Green's Dictionary of Slang):
The first time I came in contact with anything that summer that was weird—I mean really big-league weird—was in George's room, with you.
But it's the use of big league as a post-modifier for a verb phrase that is particular to Trump-ese. As Mark Liberman noted, many speakers of American English use big-time in that role, but big league is far less expected. That peculiarity of usage, along with Trump's tendency not to release the final /g/, plays a large part in people perceiving what he says as bigly.
(I had more to say about big league vs. bigly in an NYU panel on political rhetoric on Wednesday, before the final debate — video is here.)
Update: More on big league vs. bigly from NPR here.