Covfefe: the creativity of typos
In the era of keyboards and touchscreens, typos are the scourge of our modern lives, causing embarrassment to presidents and paupers alike. But out of such errors, sometimes beautiful new words are born. Here we examine some cases where mistakes have led to the formation of new terms. Will covfefe join their ranks? We’re still trying to work out a suitable definition…
In Old English, the word adder, meaning a serpent or snake, was spelled nædre. In Middle English, the initial n was lost when people started saying ‘an addre’ instead of ‘a naddre’. In fast speech, it is impossible to tell whether the sound /n/ belongs to the indefinite article or the following noun, which can lead to the ‘n’ migrating from one word to another. This process is known as metanalysis, and has been responsible for changes in the spelling of several words, such as apron, auger, and umpire.
Helpmeet, meaning a helpful companion or partner, was formed in the 17th century from an erroneous reading of the Bible. In Genesis 2:18, 20, Adam’s future wife is described as ‘an help meet for him’ (i.e. a suitable helper for him). The two words ‘help’ and ‘meet’ were mistakenly taken as one, and were incorrectly hyphenated, leading to the formation of a new, single, word. The variant helpmate, now the more familiar form, came into use in the early 18th century.
Syllabus emerged in the middle of the 17th century, in the sense ‘concise table of headings of a discourse’. The word was based on a misreading of the Latin word sittybas, meaning ‘a title slip or label’, in some early printed editions of Cicero’s Epistulae ad Atticum (Letters to Atticus).
The rather lovely nenuphar is a (sadly largely obsolete) literary term for a water lily. It derives from the Latin nenufar, which is seen from around 1200 in British sources. Nenufar comes from the Arabic naynūfar or nīnūfar, which was probably a transmission error for nīlūfar, meaning ‘blue lotus flower’. The mistake probably arose from a misreading of the consonant l as n, because of the similarity in shape of the two characters.
In Middle English, ‘sneeze’ was written fnese. In time, the combination fn became unfamiliar, and the word was commonly misread or misprinted as ‘ſnese’, with a long s instead of an f. The adoption of the new spelling ‘sneeze’ was assisted by its onomatopoeic qualities. Bless you!
A far more recent example of a typo becoming a real word is the case of pwn, which emerged in the early 21st century as a verb meaning ‘utterly defeat’ or ‘completely get the better of’. The word resulted from a common mistyping of own, due to the proximity of the letter P to the letter O on a keyboard, and is now typed deliberately as a form of leetspeak. A similar case is ‘teh’ – a mistyping of ‘the’ that is so common, most computers automatically correct it. It is often used ironically as a deliberate replacement for the definite article, but it has also developed meanings beyond the confines of its more accepted parent, as an intensifier or modifier. Perhaps fat fingers aren’t such a bad thing after all!