The Thews, the Stature, Bulk and Bigly

Is Trump a modern Shakespeare?


By Nathaniel Nelson

Bigly (adv.): in a particularly “winning” fashion, with much gusto.

William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist who ever lived, is known to have invented thousands of words and phrases that are now totally commonplace: eyeball, assassination, heart of gold, laughable, in a pickle, hurry! In the process of conveying the subtleties of human interaction, highlighting the unique beauty of the spoken word, and accentuating the effect of every line of his works, Shakespeare would recombine, transform, and altogether invent verbal expressions. You could say that he went into the Elizabethan theater and won, and did it bigly…

In 2016, the world’s arguably most prolific speaker is the Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump, like Shakespeare, wields great influence over his many supporters, and reaches exponentially more eyes and ears on a daily basis than even the Bard did in his time. And as his campaign has demonstrated thus far, Trump has a unique ability to define reality according to his own terms. One minor controversy resulting from this situation, among many, is the ongoing debate about his use of the term “bigly,” or perhaps “big league.” In general, it’s meant to add emphasis to an action such as “destroying” (ISIS, Obamacare), “getting rid of” (trade deals, immigrants) or, most often, “winning” (miscellaneous). Here’s an example of its use in a sentence:

The debate about what exactly Trump has been saying this whole time is still ongoing. Trump hasn’t openly addressed the controversy, and it’s possible that it may never be definitively solved—even Jimmy Fallon’s impression, mocking Trump’s saying “bigly,” sort of sounded like “big league.” If you idolize Trump and wish to see him succeed, you’ve probably been hearing “big league,” and if you’re left-leaning and find Republican rhetoric to be of an embarrassingly low standard, you’ll probably continue to hear “bigly.” It’s worth remembering that, though we hear through our ears, we process auditory information in our brains, where all our other biases and sources of subjectivity lie. It’s totally possible that Trump has invited this ambiguity simply to get people to continue talking about him.

But while Fallon’s doing his best Trump impersonation, Trump may actually be doing his best Shakespeare impersonation. As Shakespeare Online explains, the poet created new forms of words and phrases “by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.” Is Donald Trump not simply attaching a suffix to an adjective, to create his own adverb? And while you may take solace in knowing that Messrs. Merriam and Webster give far more weight to classical writers than modern celebrities, it’s also safe to assume that Trump speeches are consumed exponentially more often in this country than Shakespearean dramas, and consequentially one is more likely to hear “bigly” than “metamorphize” or “grovel.”

So while your librarian or your parents might argue that “bigly” is not a real word, and they are correct, it’s also true that language is malleable. We as a society collectively agree to entrust the defining of exact terminology to certain sources, and even the most strident of dictionaries will offer up a few examples of words your grandmother wouldn’t approve of. Here, for example, is the definition of “noob,” and the Merriam-Webster entry for “bromance.”

Like it or not, this is the (small) hand we’ve been dealt—he may not quite be Shakespeare, but, as Trump himself has emphasized, “I know words, I have the best words.” As the Bard might say, though, “These are but wild and whirling words.”

Nathaniel NelsonNathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.