Pro tip for educators helping teens with their SAT prep: Try to provoke world leaders to fling 50-cent words at President Trump. (Not like “G-Unit,” though. The other kind.) Last night, after Trump announced that he would be imposing new sanctions on North Korea, Kim Jong-un called the president a “deranged US dotard” that he promised to “tame … with fire.” The burn sounded like Eminem had gotten his hands on a copy of McGuffey’s Reader, and it immediately enflamed the internet to find out more about what might just be the new #covfefe.
The Twitter reaction followed a predictable cycle: “LoL ‘dotard,’” —> “Oh snap, that’s a real word!” —> “LoL, but ‘dotard’ tho.” Searches for the term hit peak interest literally overnight (the region that looked up the term the most was, unsurprisingly, Washington, DC). Within minutes, Merriam-Webster’s ever-on-the-ball Twitter feed had offered a definition. This morning, the New York Times published a story noting the word had been used only 10 times in its pages since 1980. Other outlets pointed out that it was a word favored by Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Before we go any further, here’s what you came here for: A dotard is an old person, someone who has become weak or senile.)
But it was Twitter that took the joke and ran the furthest. Unlike, Trump’s “covfefe,” a typo that the internet got to define for itself, “dotard” has a definition, so instead of creating meaning from nothing, folks simply had to discover its significance and revel in it. “Now that I know what it means, I gotta admit that dotard is a pretty accurate description of Trumpy,” writer Touré said. Director Edgar Wright correctly pointed out that it would have been better to learn the term doing a crossword than as the precursor to nuclear war. Meanwhile, other folks, many of them seemingly Trump supporters, took up the hashtag #DotardTrump to make the argument that laughing at Kim Jong-un’s comments was tantamount to backing a North Korean leader threatening nuclear war. It’s not, really, but such are the ways of Twitter scuffles.
The most valuable thing to come out of this, though, is that it’s actually become a teachable moment—not necessarily for diplomacy, but for vocabulary. Some have noted that the use of the word by Kim Jong-un may have stemmed from the fact that the North Korean state news service is using rather dated Korean-English dictionaries; if that’s the case, it’s to the benefit of much of the English-speaking world.
Language evolves so fast that even though new and exciting words are always being invented, just as many fall out of favor. We discard words almost as quickly as we coin them, especially online. But thanks to Kim Jong-un’s jab at Trump, who used the far-less-eloquent “Rocket Man” to disparage the North Korean leader both on Twitter and in front of the United Nations earlier this week, “dotard” is now back in favor. The Twitter Moment that commemorated the news didn’t focus on the fact that people were now calling the US president a senile old man, it focused on the fact that online culture had picked up a new vocabulary word overnight. If we could get every political leader to do that, word-of-the-day toilet paper would get wiped out completely. (Sorry.) Moments like these are likely why the Twitter feeds of so many dictionaries are quick to respond to trending words: They’re able to teach something with a mental association that isn’t easily forgotten.
It won’t last, of course. Even if Kim Jong-un is accidentally bolstering the vocabularies of everyone on the internet now, the news will quickly be eclipsed. Such is the cycle of Twitter. And indeed, by this morning, most of social media was already on to talking about other things. We’d all do well to keep last night’s lesson in mind, though, lest we be hoisted on our own dotard.