Gretchen McCulloch is the former resident linguist of The Toast.
“Covfefe” — from a typo in a late-night Trump tweet about “negative press covfefe” — has been taking the Internet by storm. Retweeted more than 127,000 times and “liked” more than 162,000 times before it was deleted, the tweet spawned Photoshops, T-shirts and even an unusually self-deprecating response from the president himself as users searched for the word’s meaning.
President Trump’s strange linguistic style has previously been described as “full of non sequiturs,” “incoherent” or simply characteristic of oral rather than written language — and, of course, he isn’t even the first recent public figure to tweet a weird keysmash. But in this case, there’s a further complication: No one can agree on is how to pronounce “covfefe.” Is it cov-fee-fee? Cov-fef-ay? Cov-feef? Something else? And why is it so hard to squeeze in the “v”?
Fortunately, linguistics has an answer.
A starting point is the way we normally decide how to pronounce an unfamiliar word. Usually, we try to draw analogies with English words we already know. For example, we knew how to pronounce “-ly” from words like “slowly,” so it isn’t too hard to figure out how to pronounce “bigly.”
But sometimes this approach runs into problems. In this case, there just aren’t any common English words ending in -efe. A wild-card search on the very comprehensive dictionary aggregator OneLook yielded the following list of words: jefe, fefe, efe, hefe, okeefe, hogrefe, keefe, reprefe, tefe and kefe. Pretty obscurefe.
So we have to search further afield. Maybe we go for the Spanish word “jefe,” meaning “boss.” Maybe we look to a different vowel, as in “fife” or “cafe.” Maybe we look to other spellings of the /f/ sound at the end of a word, like “ff” as in “fluff,” “gaffe” and “coiffe.”
The problem is that none of these is a close analogue, making it unsurprising that several Twitter polls have found that people are strongly split. But it looks like the lack of -fefe endings won’t remain true for long. People have started smashing covfefe together with other words to refer to the covfefe meme. There now exists the “threadfefe” (a thread about covfefe), an “exorfefe” (an exorcist of the word covfefe), a “presifefe” (president) and the slogan “If u think you’re above covfefe you’re part of the probfefe.”
Depending on how long it takes until we reach peak covfefe, these could remain simple portmanteau words — made by blending the sounds and meaning of two other words, like how “Brexit” came from Britain and exit. Or, -fefe could become its very own libfix — a fragment of a word that turns into an affix (i.e. a prefix or suffix) with its own specific meaning. This is how -gate got “liberated” from Watergate to refer to any scandal.
Now what about “v”? Again, a problem: The only “vf” words in English are compounds or acronyms, such as “lovefest” or IVF, for in vitro fertilization. It feels oddly difficult to say /v/ and /f/ right next to each other.
There’s a good reason for that too, but you need to play along. Put your hand on your throat and say /vvvvv/ and /fffff./ Alternate back and forth. Don’t whisper: Covfefe doesn’t care if you’re getting weird looks on the busfefe.
Can you feel how /vvvv/ makes your throat vibrate, but with /ffff/ it’s silent? Now try it again with /sssss/ and /zzzz./
Turning on and off your vocal cords as between /ffff/ and /ssss/ vs. /vvvv/ and /zzzz/ is slightly tricky and normally we try to avoid it. This is secretly true every time you add an -s to make a plural in English. The spelling hides the pronunciation, which changes between /s/ and /z/ to avoid making your vocal cords switch. So if you pronounce it cov-fe-fe, you’ll pluralize it cov-fe-fezzz. If you pronounce it cov-feef, you’ll pluralize it cov-feefsss — even though we can’t agree on the vowels, we all find the switching hard!
The difficulty of pronouncing “covfefe” may even have had a positive side effect, spurring floods of people onto social media to debate about how it was pronounced and make up creative -fefe wordplays. Typos, whether careless or deliberate, often lead to humor. And covfefe encapsulated a particular moment: a fun, communal way of letting off steam in an era when a late-night Trump tweet could lead to things much worse than a weird-looking typo.