Late Tuesday night, President Donald Trump tweeted the word “covfefe.”
An evident typo in a clumsily prematurely-sent tweet, the word took Twitter by storm. Jokes abounded. Reporters lamented that they would be up all night, as the errant tweet remained undeleted for several hours. Around 6 a.m., it disappeared, and the President tweeted, “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ??? Enjoy!”
Who, indeed? Well, linguists and lexicographers, maybe. Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book on internet language and hosts a podcast, noted on Twitter that “no words in English end in fefe,” adding, “This lack of similar words is why no one knows how to pronounce ‘covfefe.’ Same problem as with ‘doge,’” a fake word popularized by an internet meme.
McCulloch goes on to say time will tell whether “fefe” becomes a “libfix”: “a prefix or suffix that’s BROKEN FREE,” like how -gate broken off from “Watergate” and is now attached to various words to indicate a scandal. It’s unclear what “fefe” would indicate — Trump clearly meant to type “coverage,” but so far, McCulloch notes, “fefe compounds… are self-referential, referring to the covfefe meme itself.”
The Oxford Dictionaries blog, run by the lexicographers who decide which words get added to the dictionary every year, posted about “covfefe,” noting that several words we use (sneeze, syllabus), and some we don’t (helpmeet, nenuphar), came about because of typos or mispronunciation. The internet has given birth to several of the more recent additions to the OED, including “pwn,” which OED notes “emerged in the early 21st century as a verb meaning ‘utterly defeat’ or ‘completely get the better of’” and “resulted from a common mistyping of own, due to the proximity of the letter P to the letter O on a keyboard.”
The post was ambiguous as to whether “covfefe” will join these words, partly because it doesn’t yet have a real definition. As McCulloch said, time — and likely the internet — will tell.
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• “Falling in Love with Words: The Secret Life of a Lexicographer” (Kory Stamper, March 2017)
• “Smearch, Fidgital, Skinjecture: Creating New Terms for the Modern World” (Jessica Gross, April 2015)
• “The Elements of Bureaucratic Style” (Colin Dickey, April 2017)