While some casual observers speculated if covfefe would win Word of the Year, lexicographers duly noted that the presidential typo for coverage, if creating a curious cultural moment, lacked any meaningful use to genuinely merit any such award.
I think covfefe does deserve a different prize, however: my second annual Etymology of the Year.
In the aftermath of Trump’s tweet—yes, we live in an age where tweets have aftermaths—a confused and bemused public rushed to jokes and hot takes. Political critics interpreted covfefe as signs of the president’s dangerous Twitter addiction or deteriorating mental health. Cultural critics diagnosed covfefe as symptoms societal distraction from more pressing concerns of war, poverty, and climate change. Linguists weighed in on why we were so baffled by how to pronounce covfefe and whether or not covfefe would become a productive word or word-forming element. (It seems not.)
Others, meanwhile, took to some very creative etymologizing. On Twitter, Chris David Miles winkingly offered:
Though he may not have been aware of the parameters of Arabic, Chris David Miles was clearly having fun with the limitations of Google Translate. Still, the same Arabic “explanation” ran rampant on the likes of Reddit.
Facebook circulated some very Trumpian, rabble-rousing stories. First, this:
Covfefe’ (pronounced “cuv – fee- fae”) is an Antediluvian term for “In the end we win.” It was commonly used by the sons of Adam to rail against the evil actions of the fallen who had led man astray.
The term gained popularity prior to the great deluge and was rarely used after the flood subsided. It regained favor around the time Nimrod was building his tower, after which it was entirely lost in translation at Babel.
That’s why Libs can’t find the Definition – It’s in the Bible! And that’s the one place they stay away from at ALL costs.!
Share this post far and wide! That way libs might be able to ‘get a grip’ on themselves.
And then, um, this:
A few people have asked me about President’s Trump’s tweet in which he used the word “covfefe.” Most people think he meant to write “coverage” and they have had quite a bit of fun with it, but actually it is a real word of Yiddish origin, meaning “a futile search” or “a pointless and false quest.” It was originally transliterated from the Hebrew as “kabfefe,” whose etymology is “kab”—relating to the mystical Qabalah—and “fefe,” which is a word for “butterfly.” What Trump was actually saying in Yiddish tweet-speak was, “We are doing great things despite the press’s negative and pointless search, aka fake news.”
For those who are interested, the idea of “covfefe” comes from an old Yiddish tale about a foolish Sephardi rabbi who believed he was called to find and destroy the mythical and rare butterfly known as Benshariza, or “Lucifer butterfly”—a name that comes from “Helel ben Shahar,” meaning “shining star” (see Isaiah 14:12; also see Ephesians 2:2, where Satan is called the “prince of the power of the air”). The rabbi claimed that the Benshariza was recognizable by a unique and disturbing pattern on its huge wings, which looked like the moon and star symbol of the god Ba’al-Hadad. He was convinced that this ominous creature housed “the spirit of Satan” and that if he could destroy it, he would free the world of evil.
His search became an obsession, driving him across Europe to catch countless butterflies, but all he really caught were rounds of derision. His travels took him from Iberia to Bucharest, then up to Moscow, and finally back to Europe again, where he met his doom in the Palatinate (southwestern Germany), in a little town called Cagelenstat.* There he came across a baron who led him to believe that he had the beautiful butterfly in his possession but retorted, “Why, in the name of all things holy, would I hand it over to a little flitting fly-catcher on some stupid kabfefe!” The rabbi, exhausted and frustrated by his long travels, flew into a rage and lunged at the baron, who promptly drove a battle-axe into his skull and ended the meaningless quest. From that point on the word covfefe has been used to laugh at idiots in search of nothing.
*NOTE: It is likely mere coincidence that Cagelenstat is the original name of Kallstadt, Germany, which happens to be the birthplace of Friedrich Drumpf, the grandfather of Donald J. Trump. Friedrich, or Frederick, who became an American citizen in 1896, often advised his children, “Know what you want and follow your dream, but never get distracted by covfefe!”
Nope, nope, nope. Very nope.
The fact-checkers at Snopes, among others, have debunked these utterly false etymologies line by line. Covfefe isn’t Arabic. It isn’t does derive from some pre-Flood language. And it definitely doesn’t come from the Hebrew kabfefe referring to some “mystical butterfly.” But the theory of a secret message encoded in covfefe still spread online.
And that fake news leached into etymologies—that fake etymologies made news at all—makes the bogus roots of covfefe my 2017 Etymology of the Year. Not even the business of word origins was safe from the conspiratorial, post-truth-y forces in the darker underbelly of social media, from impulses to ascribe meaning and purpose to Trump’s every last twitch on Twitter.
And one person knew this most of all. Trump immediately deleted covfefe Tweet and trolled us all:
Let’s put to rest 2017 and all its etymological covfefery for a saner, less nonsensical 2018. Happy New Year!