Dictionary.com released a list of its most frequent “unmatched queries,” meaning words that people search for and come up blank. Because they’re not actual words. “Covfefe” tops the list.
Remember when Dan Quayle couldn’t spell potato and it was a whole thing for, like, two decades?
“It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable,’’ Quayle wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Standing Firm.”
Now our president literally invents words (covfefe!), sending tens of thousands of people scrambling to their online dictionaries and leaving lexicographers scratching their heads over what to do about it all.
Dictionary.com released a list of its most frequent “unmatched queries,” meaning words that people search for and come up blank. Because they’re not actual words.
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“Covfefe” tops the list, having been looked up “tens of thousands” of times, Dictionary.com editors say, since President Donald Trump tweeted: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” shortly after midnight May 31.
Other top unmatched queries include “antifa,” a shortened version of anti-fascist, “cuck,” a slur usually aimed at liberals, “smize,” supermodel Tyra Banks’ portmanteau of smile + eyes, and “turnt,” a variation on “turned” that means really excited.
“Covfefe is not a misspelling,” lexicographer Jane Solomon told me. “People came to Dictionary.com and typed in exactly what they saw on Twitter, for any number of reasons you might do when someone prominent uses a word that confounds you.”
Solomon said Dictionary.com lexicographers and editors pore over data all year to search for language trends and shifts, to determine their annual word of the year and to decide what words to add to the dictionary permanently.
“One of the things, as lexicographers, we’re thinking about very carefully is whether this is a word people will continue to look up,” Solomon said. “We don’t add everything that surges in our unmatched queries list, but we work to define the words if there’s continued interest.”
Several of the top unmatched queries will be added to dictionary.com, but Solomon wasn’t saying which ones. The jury is still out on covfefe, but if U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley’s COVFEFE Act becomes law, she said, chances are good that they’ll work to define and include the finger garble.
(Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a bill that makes covfefe an acronym — Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement — and calls for a president’s social media communications to be documented and stored under the Presidential Records Act.)
Solomon couldn’t remember another time in modern history when a typo led to the invention of a new word, but she noted that typos are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of language.
Standardized spelling, in fact, is a relatively new phenomenon, she said.
“The printing press had to happen before spelling standardization was even a concern,” Solomon said. “People talk about Jane Austen being a terrible speller or an inconsistent speller, but standard spelling was still a relatively new concept.”
Consider how English has evolved since Shakespeare was writing it.
And we’ve only very recently been exposed to politicians’ direct, unedited communication. Quayle’s goof happened on a chalkboard, but even that was a relatively rare glimpse at a leader writing in real time.
Twitter has changed all that.
“We’re in a really interesting time to be watching that evolution as it happens,” Solomon said.
Particularly when people head to the internet to look up words, allowing the searches to be tracked and analyzed.
“People encounter different words through politics, through pop culture, through movies, through music, through reading,” Solomon said. “And then they want to know what a word means. Or maybe they already know what it means, and they want to check if their intuition was right.
“I’m pretty sure,” she added, “people who looked up covfefe knew they were not going to find anything.”
In fact, when you type covfefe into Dictionary.com, it asks, “Did you mean convive?” Then it suggests several other words you may have meant, including “coevolve,” “cavefish” and “goof-off.”
Defining moments, indeed.