During the first of three — yes, three; stock those liquor cabinets now — presidential debates, Republican nominee Donald Trump proved himself to be quite the fiction writer. He pretended that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, created the birther conspiracy during her 2008 campaign. He lied about his ability to release his tax returns. He denied having ever claimed climate change was a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.
But there’s one thing Donald Trump did not make up during the debate: words.
Though Trump’s answers, both in his allotted time and in his dozens of interruptions when Clinton had the floor, were littered with language that didn’t ring quite right to audiences — “bigly,” “purposely,” “braggadocios” — it turns out that Trump’s words all pass muster. Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster associate editor and professional lexicographer, told ThinkProgress that Trump’s words, like science and systemic racism, are very, very real.
Surely Trump would be pleased to get Stamper’s stamp of lingual approval. “Even in situations where our speech is scrutinized, we tend not to think of our speech as wrong,” Stamper said. “We think: I speak fine, and everyone else is wrong. You’re sort of the linguistic center of the universe.” Read on for Stamper’s breakdown of the night’s bigly vocabulary words, the significance of terms like “stamina,” and what it means when Trump refers to all things computer-related as “the cyber.”
Bigly: It’s like huge, but bigger
“You have regulations on top of regulations, and new companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business. And you want to increase the regulations and make them even worse. I’m going to cut regulations. I’m going to cut taxes big league, and you’re going to raise taxes big league, end of story.” — Trump
The reaction: Trump may have said “big league,” but plenty of viewers heard “bigly” and responded accordingly:
The lexicographer says: Trump said “big league,” and even if he didn’t, it kind of wouldn’t matter, because “bigly” is, in fact, a word.
“Donald Trump tends to swallow the final ‘g’ when he says ‘big league’,” Stamper said. (In this and so many ways, Trump calls to mind another Republican with White House, or at least White-House-adjacent, aspirations: Sarah Palin.) This speech pattern, Stamper observed, dates back “at least a year.”
“Because of the way that he says ‘big league,’ he swallows that final ‘g,’ so everyone is absolutely convinced that he says ‘bigly.’” Official transcripts of the debate share Stamper’s read and quote Trump as saying “big league.”
“There’s another wonky grammatical reason” why this is so confusing to audiences. Trump “uses ‘big league’ in places where you would use an adverb, and ‘bigly’ is an adverb. So Trump says, ‘he’s gonna lose big league,’ and it comes across as ‘bigly.’”
“And the kicker is: ‘bigly’ is actually a word,” Stamper said. “It goes back to the 1400s. But it’s incredibly rare.” It has an entry in the dictionary and everything, “because it has some decent use in the broader western canon of literature. It’s been used in Far from the Madding Crowd and in some of John Dryden’s translations. It was used in [Thomas] Malory’s The Death of Arthur. It’s got some use; not a whole lot. It’s a really, really rare word.”
“But because it’s not familiar to anybody, and because Donald Trump has a reputation among some for being a fabulist, people just assume that he’s making up this word — bigly — whenever he wants to.”
Trump’s use of “big league” as an adverb shows, to Stamper and other linguists, that “language is flexible. ‘Big league’ started as a noun.Then it started being used in adjectival situations — ‘that’s a big league contract’— so it makes sense that then you would shift it a little bit to the adverb.”
He said it on purposely
“That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely. OK? That was not a mistake. That was done purposely. When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they’re not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it’s disgraceful. And believe me, this country thinks it’s — really thinks it’s disgraceful, also.” — Trump
The reaction: Trump, fumbling for the word “purposefully,” made up a word instead.
purposely, cousin of bigly, not to be confused with purposefully
— John Hendrickson (@JohnGHendy) September 27, 2016
The lexicographer says: “Purposely is a word,” said Stamper. “It used to be much more common.”
This one, like “bigly,” dates back to the late 1400s and means — not a huge surprise here — “on purpose.” It fell out of favor about 150 years ago and is the clear loser in a popularity contest (to invoke one of Trump’s favorite words and pastimes in a single sentence) with “purposefully,” which is more common today. There is a slight distinction between the two: “‘Purposefully’ implies more determination than ‘purposely’ does. ‘Purposely’ seems to just mean on purpose, and ‘purposefully’ means done on purpose and with determination.”
“I think it’s interesting just because people are listening so carefully to his language now, they’re finding all these words that are not that common in print but still have a lot of use in speech,” said Stamper. Spoken words, as you might expect, are “a whole lot harder to track for lexicographers.”
Braggadocios (rhymes with “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”)
“I am very underleveraged. I have a great company. I have a tremendous income. And the reason I say that is not in a braggadocios way. It’s because it’s about time that this country had somebody running it that has an idea about money.” — Trump
The reaction: Someone got lost on the way to saying “braggadocio.” Even the official Merriam-Webster Twitter account (which was not manned by Stamper during the debate) took this view:
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 27, 2016
The lexicographer says: This is a trickier one. Braggadocios “is not entered into our dictionaries,” Stamper said. “But it is a word.”
“Lots of people assume that if a word doesn’t have dictionary definition, it’s not a word. But that’s not true. It just means the word doesn’t have enough use in print.”
Braggadocios is “a dialect term,” meaning it appears predominately in speech, not print, and its use dates back to 1851. Even now, when it pops up in the vernacular, it’s typically in speech, not the written word. (People who were into Lin-Manuel Miranda before Hamilton probably recognize “braggadocio” from In the Heights.)
All the kids are on the cyber
“As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” — Trump
The reaction: Trump’s use of this phrase makes him sound like a very old person who is not especially familiar with, as he calls it, “the cyber.” But Americans are very reassured by the knowledge that Trump’s 10-year-old son “has computers” and “is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable.”
asking my kids what they're saying about the debate on the cyber.
— Jason Gay (@jasongay) September 27, 2016
The lexicographer says: It is time for a brief grammar lesson.
Time for some word-nerd “spitballing,” as Stamper put it: “Generally, when we use something as a noun, we assume that it is a count noun. Count nouns get an article in front of them.” For example: The book, a puppy, the disaster. “We assume that most of the nouns that we encounter are count nouns.” In addition to getting a definite article, these words also get pluralized: two books, 101 puppies, several disasters.
We also have what are called “mass nouns,” which “don’t necessarily get an article and don’t necessarily get pluralized, because they’re taken as plural already,” Stamper said. “So, ‘would you like some coffee?’ That’s a mass noun.”
When it comes to “internet things like Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, we assume that because those things are business names, they don’t get considered as count nouns.”
We’re in a vernacular wave of ditching articles like “the” — think of the oft-quoted Justin-Timberlake-as-Sean-Parker line from The Social Network: “Drop the ‘the.’ Just: ‘Facebook.’” — and only bringing them back to make self-aware jokes about being too old for whatever platform we’re using at the moment. To use an article like “the” before, say, “Snapchat” or “Instagram,” unless one is joking about saying “the,” is to betray a lack of savvy about social media and internet culture in general.
“I think that, because those company names or product names get attached to something that seems very general — social media — if you’re not familiar with them, you want to treat them as regular English nouns,” Stamper said. Which is to say, “you’ll treat them like count nouns.”
Stamper’s read on Trump is that “he really loves the definite article and then his nouns… That construction is something he uses quite a bit. A little more than the average person.”
Another issue with Trump’s word choice here is that “the way Donald Trump uses ‘the cyber,’ it’s not really clear what he means by it,” Stamper said. “He uses it with shifting meanings. Sometimes he means cyber security. Sometimes he means cyber warfare or cyber terrorism. Sometimes it seems like he just means computers.”
Talk to your doctor about stamina
Lester Holt: This year Secretary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major party. Earlier this month, you said she doesn’t have, quote, ‘a presidential look.’ She’s standing here right now. What did you mean by that?
Donald Trump: She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina. I said she doesn’t have the stamina. And I don’t believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina.
The response: Trump’s comment about “stamina,” on top of not really being an answer to Holt’s question, scanned as a gendered insult. And, in replacing “look” with “stamina,” Trump introduced a word into the debate that makes people think less about the energy level of a potential president and more about erectile dysfunction.
"Stamina" is another coded word for her being a woman, as in she is weaker physically. These are so basic and transparent. #debatenight
— Juleyka (@JuleykaLantigua) September 27, 2016
Donald Trump says "stamina" more than a Viagra commercial. #debatenight
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) September 27, 2016
The lexicographer says: “Stamina basically means penis, right?” Stamper said, referring to the reaction she saw on Twitter as well. “So that’s what he’s saying?”
Stamina comes from the Latin word “stamen,” which means two elderly lovers holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs. Or, as Stamper said, “It’s Latin for the threads of life that the fates would weave through your life.”
“If you had stamina when this word came in,” Stamper said, it meant that those “threads were strong. They weren’t going to break, which meant you had great physical or mental strength, longevity. You had endurance.”
In Clinton’s response, Stamper pointed out, “She took the redirection,” perhaps eager to focus on her obvious feats of endurance than on Trump’s opinion of her appearance: “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”