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Friday, 2 June 2017

Covfefe is Wumbo

I'm interested in words. Not in a linguistic or etymological sense, not really, because I lack the knowledge. More a "I'll go on a Wikipedia binge and complain about IPA" sense.

The meaning of words is generally more interesting. It's not just what a word, such as wumbo, means but also why use that particular word. One of the things about English is that one generally has multiple ways of expressing the same thing. Or, at least, essentially the same thing.

To take a concrete example, why might we refer to a methodological approach to history as being longue durée? After all, we could just say we're interested in the whole duration, the slow change or, simply, the long term. If all these different expressions mean the same thing, the meaning of the words (as found in a dictionary) cannot be the reason for the selection.

While I don't know for sure, I rather suspect using the terminology of the original, French, advocates is simply a useful means of establishing credibility. It's pretty much the same idea as sticking a heroin-addled witness in a suit: their underlying reliability doesn't change based on their clothing choices, but the appropriate sartorial style means the jury is more open minded. In academic circles, being original is a great thing (see: Evans on Goldhagen) but standing on the shoulders of giants is also awesome.

More generally, we have to think about the abundance of gratuitous French phrases in the academy. A lot of the time these words are justified on the basis that there is no direct translation. I have to take them at face value because I don't speak French. On the other hand, everyone knows that French does not distinguish between a house and a home. Makes you wonder, right?

Of course, being a NZer, I don't like France much. I am much happier to believe that we should carry on talking about gens or Volk or Sonderweg than I am when it comes to these French phrases I can't actually recall. It also may matter that I started thinking about this in the context of post-modernist histories.

Post-modernism in history might be essentialised as "History is impossible, but imma write a book anyway". Needless to say, it's a bit weird. The theoretical groundings I have encountered were also poorly written and very dense. Yet, apart from the gaps these explanations left behind, I feel the biggest issue is that I agree with many of their premises, but think they suggest quite different conclusions. Which brings us to covfefe.

The one thing that people agree on about cov-feh-feh is that it's not an actual word. Most people have described it as a typo rather than an alternative to "hakuna matata" or "don't worry" or "persevere" or, indeed, wumbo. But is it?

Now, I have to say that I am partial to funny typos. That is, I might type something and accidentally manage to create some kind of gem. That I can't think of any examples right now is exactly the point. And maybe if I was the US president and I was typing out a tweet and saw that I'd written covfefe I'd take the opportunity for some spirited trolling (in its original sense). Maybe. It is pretty funny. It may even be damn well hilarious. But I don't think the Orange-in-Chief shares my sense of humour (see: that's funny... I'm orange too).

The other immediate thing to note is that being the US president is a bit like being a heroin addicted witness: presentation and bearing matter and are fundamental to standard operation (hopefully they're not alike). Basically, this means that random crap like covfefe is rather a no-go. Except covfefe was up for hours.

When you consider how Trump has been running his operation, he's basically been compared to two people. The first is Nixon. That's both in terms of the Mad Man theory (I'm sympathetic*) and stuff like Comey. The second person is Candidate Trump, i.e. the persona he used in public during the US presidential campaign cycle. There are two major constants here: image and Twitter (the Mad Man theory is all about image).

Looking at the tweet itself, it's commonly understood as an attempt to start a rant about negative press. From this, I infer image. But if you then stick covfefe on the end of it... or even accidentally type it and decide to keep it around... you actually change the press narrative. Rather than talking about, I suppose, the Paris Climate spat, the press will focus on the nice clickbait "laugh at Trump" angle.

This isn't a new tactic, by the way. This is yet another sign that Trump is really just a morally dubious (personally I say immoral) version of the moral chameleon otherwise Teflon John known as John Key. Goofiness was a major part of Key's playbook, and no matter how much ridicule crap like the three-way handshake brings, it's ultimately just hot air, everyone knows it. But what people don't recognise is that it crowds out, for example,  discussion about the absence of progress on productivity improvements.**

It has to be said, we're talking about a very cynical or even conspirational interpretation of covfefe. But is it so unbelievable? Is it utterly nuts, really? Well, I have the answer:

De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to yo
Okay. Not me. But Still.


*My understanding is such: behave unpredictability and you'll force a conservative approach to interacting with you, this is more advantageous (big risks come with big rewards... and they're not taking even small risks). This makes sense, if actually really well modelled as a mad man.

**This may have hurt John Key's shot at an actual historical legacy. As clear thinkers have always said, the housing problem is  not about foreigners. Key told us this. But why would we believe old Smile and Wave John?

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