Donald Trump and our newest (and basically only) Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate don’t agree on much — including what exactly “the Big Lie” is. But at least on capitalizing the Big Lie, they’re eye to eye — and that can have dangerous implications for everyone.
“The lengths Pennsylvania Republicans will go to serve Donald Trump and the Big Lie is a national embarrassment,” Pennsylvania attorney general-turned-hopeful governor Josh Shapiro tweeted just hours before announcing that he’s running. It was one of more than a dozen recent Shapiro tweets that have used the capitalized phrase. Plenty of those on the left and right have done the same.
Trump’s erratic capitalization has been well scrutinized, particularly his Germanic tendency to capitalize every noun (along with other random parts of speech). So it’s not surprising that his public statements capitalize Big Lie as well — that is, when they don’t write it as “THE BIG LIE.”
Speaking of Germans: The term was coined by Hitler, who wrote of the große Lüge (big Lie) in Mein Kampf. In Hitler’s telling, the “big lie” was one told by Jews about Germany’s role in World War I. But then he and Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda minister, turned the Big Lie around to be about Jews themselves, as he blamed them for Germany’s ills. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it thus: “a falsehood contrived on such a large scale that its magnitude and definiteness discourage dissent (typically one propagated by a totalitarian regime).”
Now in 2021, “the Big Lie” is again part of our regular political discourse. Which is, um, really encouraging.
According to Trump, the Big Lie is that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. But for the rest of us, Trump’s Big Lie, which Shapiro and others reference, is that he won and Biden lost. But these opposing viewpoints, even though only one is based in reality, have both largely capitalized the term, which calcifies it in our news narrative. This exacerbates the condition of different people living under different realities.
In English, capitalizing anything that’s not a proper noun, not the pronoun I, and not the first word in a sentence, is a terrible idea. Capitalizing for emphasis (“This is a Big Deal!”) is lazy writing, and capitalizing because you think a word is important (“The Company mandated this,” “The President decided that”) only reinforces how unimportant you are.
The problem with overcapitalization is that it’s distracting to the reader. As we read, capital letters slow down our brains, which want to figure out why certain words are capitalized: Is this a proper noun that I’m not familiar with? Have I been doing capitalization wrong? Those fractional distractions draw attention away from the sentence’s meaning.
In Trump’s case, that’s kind of the point. He doesn’t want you to think too much about the Big Lie because then it might occur to you that he’s the one who’s lying to you.
But for the rest of us, capitalizing Big Lie is an obvious reaction to the narrative that Trump has already initiated. If you’re playing catch-up, you’re already losing. And for a man who lied a documented 30,573 times (according to the Washington Post) while in office, it’s not as though he or his supporters care if they’re called out on a lie, big or small.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and up-style to firstname.lastname@example.org.