The past year in language has been closely tied to the speech patterns of the current president. If Donald Trump lambastes “bad hombres” or describes something as “bigly,” people rush in droves to look up the words or mock his vocabulary on Twitter. Other language kerfuffles have surrounded his eccentric use of punctuation and his haphazard spelling, which Merriam-Webster patiently continues to correct for him.
On Tuesday night, Trump took to Twitter, but this time he had no ordinary misspelling in store. “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” he wrote in a now-deleted tweet that remained up for several hours and sparked an almost giddy reaction from Twitter users.
Observers have previously commented on the president’s relatively limited working vocabulary; he often resorts to favorite modifiers, like “bigly” (or “big league”) and all-purpose insults. He calls terrorists and political opponents alike “losers.” His preferred terms have been carefully observed, defined and discussed for the nation over the past year.
Despite that, he’s managed to make news once again for his diction ― and this time, it was likely just a typo.
Trump himself embraced the furor (likely a welcome distraction from reports that he plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord):
Merriam-Webster, for once, took a pass on the assignment:
The cool thing about language is its plasticity. Groups of people are quick to assign meaning to new words or to expand what a word signifies. All that is to say that “covfefe” already has an Urban Dictionary entry, and it’s pretty on point:
Not sure that’s what President Trump had in mind. Unlike his previous boast that he invented “prime the pump,” he did, in a way, coin the term “covfefe.” It’s a far cry from the neologisms created by William Shakespeare, John Milton and other creative linguists, to be clear ― they created intentionally, typically using building blocks from existing language to craft meaningful new terms. Given Trump’s later tweet, it seems clear that he did not tweet “covfefe” on purpose and has no idea what it should mean.
Now that it’s happened, this epic typo seems like an inevitable step in this presidency’s effect on language. First we’re gripped by the simplicity of his language, then his frequent inability to spell it, and now we dedicate hours to finding a use for a nonsense cluster of letters.
Language matters ― in politics, in diplomacy, and, of course, in all interpersonal relations. In a time when it seems many long-established norms of how we operate politically, how we ensure international peace and cooperation, and how we treat other people no longer apply, it’s little wonder that a carelessly made-up word, with no long-established meaning, becomes a touchstone. Real words don’t seem to matter anymore either, or not in a way that makes sense.