A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
In All Truthiness
"There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil."
—A. N. Whitehead, Dialogues
Last month the American Dialect Society (ADS), in its annual ritual, named the 2005 word of the year. As usual there were contenders in many categories: Most Useful (lifehack, podcast, patent troll), Most Unnecessary (man date, pope squatting, reverse logistics), Most Euphemistic (holiday tree for Christmas tree; holistic practitioner for prostitute), and so forth. The top honors — the Best Picture Oscar of the word world —went to truthiness.
Frequenters of the Language Lounge are excused for scratching their heads at this point. The Loungeurs themselves were somewhat nonplussed, not ever having heard the word. But it soon came to light that truthiness is a coinage of Stephen Colbert, anchor of Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," which comes on late at night, when synonyms of sugar plums are dancing in the heads of the locals, so it was no surprise that we know nothing of it.
As a WOTY (that's shorthand for "word of the year"), truthiness has several disadvantages over recent winners: it's possibly not as enduring as red state/blue state (last year's winner); it doesn't quite trip off the tongue like metrosexual (2003); it's somewhat lacking in topicality, in contrast to weapons of mass destruction (the 2002 winner). What we find most lacking about truthiness, however, is that it lacks a convincing definition. The ADS's press release says truthiness is "the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true." An ADS spokesman gave a shorter definition: "truthy, not facty." Huh? We turned to the Visual Thesaurus, our trusted companion, to see if we could get a better handle on this word and adjudge on its merits.
The word that we can't prevent from popping into mind when we hear truthiness — perhaps because this new arrival leaps into the memory location next door — is of course, truthfulness. Truthfulness, as we can see if we center its main node, comes in a couple of varieties: veracity and sincerity, along with the now archaic sooth. Going the other direction, we see that truthfulness is a species of honesty. And honesty, as we can see, has many constituents: frankness, forthrightness, candor, integrity, scrupulousness, and the rest. With so many synonyms to choose from, does English need another? Wherein lies truthiness, and is it even a species of honesty?
The definition we're given of truthiness suggests that perhaps it is not: while stating what one believes to be true can probably be included under the umbrella of candor, putting forward as truthful something that one only wishes to be true is a different kettle of fish. We would be inclined to include that activity under such heads as exaggeration or disingenuousness. Now, that's funny: notice how disingenuousness is actually the opposite of some words we already saw under honesty? The categories that subsume disingenuousness (which you get by clicking on its red dot) land us precisely in the opposite camp: artfulness, deceitfulness, and dishonesty. So there you are: truthiness, not far from being the opposite of truthfulness.
But They Mean WellThe ADS spokesman goes on to say: "The national argument right now is, one, who's got the truth and, two, who's got the facts. Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we're not going to make much progress." Another ADS member, defending the choice of truthiness for WOTY said: "it seems to me that one criterion might be that the word captures the zeitgeist of the time. I think 'truthiness' wonderfully captures the political tendencies of current Republicanism/fundamentalism."
Just when we in the Lounge were beginning to think that this whole truthiness brouhaha was just an excuse for taking some pot shots at familiar targets, a news report caught our attention: the controversy surrounding James Frey's bestselling pseudomemoir A Million Little Pieces, in which he reportedly fabricates, for dramatic effect, a number of "facts." His publisher, in a statement defending him, says that "He represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections." There's food for thought: which of true's more than a dozen senses is meant in this statement? An interesting thing about true, if you study it here, is that it's not really a synonym for factual; the VT doesn't offer up anything more than a "similar to" dotted connection between them.
So is the idea here that you can be true to your recollections but out of synch with what actually happened? That seems to be the defense proposed for Mr. Frey. We're ready to concede now that perhaps the ADS does indeed have its finger on the pulse of the lexical zeitgeist, and that perhaps truthiness, is the new truthfulness: it's the habit, or practice, or failing (you decide!) of people who imagine that "saying it's so makes it so;" or perhaps in the case of Mr. Frey, that remembering it's so makes it so.
One ADS member, not altogether pleased with the choice of truthiness, predicts that it won't last, and notes that in fact English already has a word with the intended meaning: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude, as you can see, is a species of semblance or gloss, which has many other varieties (pretense, guise, disguise, camouflage), all of them things that you should generally avoid when honesty is required: in other words, perhaps not a bad stand-in for truthiness. Why not just press this old (16th century!) and venerable word into service when a characterization truth-embellishing is required? Well, for three reasons as we see it:
- many speakers find 6-syllable words rather intimidating and are not confident about pronouncing them;
- though verisimilitude has a related adjective (verisimilar), it is so rare that most listeners would probably think that you said "very similar";
- Given the choice, most native English speakers, and especially Americans, opt for the punchiness of words with German and Anglo-Saxon roots (like truthy and truthiness), rather than ones with Latinate roots.
You can read the ADS's entire press release about the 2005 WOTY here:
If you'd like to read some of the discussion within ADS about the choice of truthiness — it was not a universally admired choice — you can look at the archives of their discussion list here. Search on truthiness:
Haven't had your fill yet? You might also be interested in the discussion about truthiness in a Wikipedia article:
or on Language Log: