Is Our Language Turning to Covfefe?


It seems one of the biggest faux pas our 45th president has made in the last couple of weeks is not his curtsy to the King of Saudi Arabia, or him shoving the prime minister of Montenegro in his quest to get to the front of the line, but a likely Ambien-induced typo that he’s since chosen to double-down on, telling the world that it’s a word that White House insiders “understand.” Covfefe. Right……

Now, I’m the first to empathize with the whole Ambien-amnesia thing. I’ve taken it before now when my mind has been racing with a particularly exciting storyline, or when I’m stressing about one of my kids. My husband tells me I’ve gotten up and made myself coffee; even had a bowl of ice cream in the middle of the night. My recollection of these events? Nada. He’s also pried my phone from my hands as I’ve fallen out mid-text, which read something along the lines of “Well, have a good night, and I’ll speak to you in the morfhfb uhghf.” It happens.

What does any of this have to do with a writing blog? Well, I came across an article (yes, on aeon.co – I know, I’m addicted), about the philosophical quest over the centuries to remove ambiguity from language; in effect, to make language as precise as mathematics. A perfect language so to speak, that would be universal, and, so specific, that is could never be misinterpreted. Several treatises have been written along these lines espousing various hypotheses as to how language can shape knowledge and guide us to a better understanding of the concepts we employ. As recently as 2007, Rhodri Lewis wrote Language, Mind and Nature, which was based upon philosopher John Wilkins’s 1668 work on the subject of a universal language and how it could have a positive impact on philosophical discourse.

The question is whether the ambiguity of language should ever be reduced to such a degree at all. As Charlie Huenemann argues in his aeon.co essay, “Constructing a perfect language means clipping its expressive range so severely that nothing new and interesting can be said.”

How awful would that be? Language is not a fixed construct! One only has to compare Chaucer to Chinua Achebe to see how language evolves. Take a look at a few of the big dictionary houses’ words of the year over the last decade: “Vape,” “Selfie,” “Tweet,” “Hashtag,” and yes, “Blog” – all of which are technology driven. Other words and phrases fit the moment; the 2016 word of the year across the board seems to be some derivation of “Post-Truth.” That’s a good summation of our current situation!

Worse, there are those who suggest that language will eventually be overtaken by…..emojis, basing their hypothesis upon the universality of a picture painting a thousand words, and all that. On HBO’s VICE News a few weeks ago, a London-based translation company was featured because it is actively hiring – wait for it – an Emoji Translator/Specialist position. Their ad reads, in part, “We are seeking an exceptional individual to provide the human touch needed where translation software is inadequate—and to help us become the go-to translation experts in this area.” I covfefe you not!!!

For my part, I say keep our language and all the beautiful ambiguities that come with it just the way it is. Allow the masters of the craft to spin it into work of such beauty that it can never be replicated. Just like other works of art, allow it to be appreciated and possibly reviled. Let it find its place in time; which is not necessarily the time in which it is written. And let it be subjective, for that is what makes it such an awesomely human construct, and not just a pile of covfefe, (a word I’m nominating for WotY 2017, definition included!) What’s your definition of Covfefe?? I’m all ears! 😊

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