Compare these examples with that of our current president’s recent tweeting. Trump called Representative Adam Schiff “Liddle’ Adam Schiff,” with an oddly hanging single quote. With this remarked upon by assorted observers, Trump responded:
To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle’, not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!
Now, never mind the “discribing” and the idea that the matter is an issue of “spelling.” More egregiously, Trump may think liddle is somehow short for little, a word of precisely the same length. He also doesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe. At least, he isn’t clear enough on it to have caught the discrepancy upon seeing the tweet on his screen.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump saddled Senator Ted Cruz with the nickname “Lyin’ Ted” and was very insistent on the correct spelling: “L-Y-I-N-apostrophe. We can’t say it the right way. We gotta go ‘Lyin’.” And he dubbed Senator Marco Rubio “Liddle Marco” (again making clear that he wanted this nickname spelled with two Ds.)
This evidence suggests he once understood the purpose of an apostrophe, but has forgotten it. Or, maybe he thought writing Liddle Marco without the apostrophe was slumming in need of correction?
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At any rate, why does Trump present himself linguistically in such cluelessly raggedy terms? Part of the answer is the times, to be sure. Since the 1960s, Anglophones have been increasingly informal in their public use of language. The hyper-refined style of Jackson and Johnson would today be processed as absurd, and no one would expect Trump or any modern president to write in that fashion.
Hence Trump’s Twitter moniker for Schiff not so long ago, “little Adam Schitt.” It was graceless to say the least but, in the grand scheme of things, of a piece with the fact that the F-word today is less profane than salty, that we give “talks” rather than speeches, and that a sitcom with Schitt in the title is a hit. Trump is fond of using totally in the teenage sense of the word: “Rep. Adam Schiff totally made up my conversation with Ukraine and read it to Congress and Millions.” And this too is a sign of the times, if slightly jarring coming so often from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s eccentric capitalization—take that “Millions” or his “Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff”—can even seem almost antiquarian, in paralleling the equally subjective way colonial Americans used capitals, as in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, Liddle’-gate is of a different order. In not merely leveling but then defending this utterly bizarre—as in, downright wrong—usage, Trump displays a complete ignorance of very basic punctuation, which ought to be resoundingly familiar to anyone who reads even a modest amount.