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Truthiness

It’s not often that a bunch of word experts project a newly-minted term into the limelight, possibly saving it from the oblivion that threatens all new words. (I say possibly because time hasn’t had time enough to tell yet.)

It started on 17 October 2005, in the inaugural Colbert Report, a satirical mock news show broadcast on the Comedy Channel. Satirist Stephen Colbert plucked the word out of nowhere shortly before going on air. He used it for the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true rather than those known to be true. It was a sarcastic way of referring to people who prefer to justify their actions from the heart rather than the head.

The word, despite such a high-profile start in life, might have disappeared again pretty soon had not the members of the American Dialect Society, confounding all predictions, chosen it as their Word of the Year at their annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 6 January 2006. The press went somewhat wild over this choice because it was such an odd word and one that up to then had hardly had any public notice at all. There have since been signs that truthiness in Colbert’s sense is achieving some circulation as a useful word, but also — worryingly — that it is more often being used wrongly as a synonym for truthfulness.

One of the odder aspects of the story is that truthiness isn’t actually new. The Oxford English Dictionary has one example, from 1824: “Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.” The writer was using it as a noun formed from the rare dialectal adjective truthy, meaning truthful, with truthiness therefore meaning truthfulness. Those using it wrongly therefore have history on their side.

Instead of asking for an independent and skeptical press that questioned authority, they look to their latest source of “truthiness,” just so they can be told they’re OK.

Wisconsin State Journal, 30 Apr. 2006

There’s a saying in sports: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” That has the virtue that has come to be known as truthiness — it is something that managers, coaches and athletes believe to be true. It sounds true. And frequently it is true.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 3 Apr. 2006

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 May 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-tru1.htm
Last modified: 13 May 2006.