Covfefe: an Arabic sign that Trump is calling a halt?

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The secret is out. When Donald Trump typed the word “covfefe” on Twitter many people were baffled but, according to Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

Now, though, many of Trump’s supporters are convinced they know the answer. The president was sending them a message in Arabic and assuring them that despite all the pressures he faces, he will stand firm.

Why the erudite Mr Trump would use Arabic to inform his American followers of this is a bit of a mystery. But Trump is in good company. Let’s not forget that God chose to communicate the text of the Qur’an in Arabic — and even included a few incomprehensible covfefe-like verses such as “alif lam mim”.

And how do Trump’s supporters know he was using Arabic? If you type “covfefe” into Google Translate (pretending that it’s an Arabic word), Google translates it into English as “covfefe” — which isn’t very helpful.

However, if you tweak it a bit and type “cov fe’fe” (which is not what Trump actually wrote, but never mind), Google translates it as “I will stand up”. Some have interpreted this as meaning Trump will “stand firm” or “stand strong”.

So how does Google arrive at this translation?

The first problem is the letter “c”, which doesn’t exist in the Arabic alphabet. When “c” is followed by the letter “o” in English it is pronounced as a hard “c” — and the Arabic alphabet has two letters roughly corresponding to that: “k” and “q”. But neither k” nor “q” helps us to arrive at the desired translation, so let’s suppose Trump meant it to be a soft “c” — like the letter “s”.

In Arabic, when it comes to the letter “s” we are spoilt for choice, because the alphabet has two versions of it, known as “seen” and “sad”. Let’s toss a coin and decide that Trump meant to use “seen”.

The second problem is the letter “o”, because it doesn’t exist in Arabic either. However, Arabic has a letter known as “waw” — which sounds like “w” or “oo” and could be a rough approximation.

The third problem is the letter “v” which again doesn’t exist in Arabic. Technically, “v” is a vocalised form of the letter “f” — so let’s use that instead.

So, with a little juggling we might argue that when Trump wrote “cov” he really meant “swf” — a letter combination which in Arabic indicates the future tense. This gives us the “will” part of Trump’s message.

The second part, “fefe” or “fe’fe”, is even more puzzling than the first — not least because there is no letter “e” in Arabic. “I stand” in Arabic would be represented by the letters “aqf”. In Egyptian colloquial Arabic (and Trump is a great admirer of President Sisi), the letter “q” is often pronounced as a glottal stop which can be represented in English by an apostrophe.

Assuming Trump forgot to include the apostrophe and meant “fe’fe” rather than “fefe”, this could be written as “feqfe”. If we ignore the first “f” and both the “e”s, this qives us “qf” — which is two-thirds of the required Arabic word.

Let’s be generous and assume that Trump intended to use the Arabic words that his supporters claim he used. What, exactly, did he mean?

Without more context it’s hard to be sure. It might mean he’s standing firm but, equally, it could mean he’s calling a halt and giving up. The relevant Arabic verb has multiple meanings. Arab drivers see it every day in road signs, and it’s telling them “STOP!”, not “Stand up!”.

Originally published at al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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