A Farewell to Stephen Colbert's "Truthiness"
Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" ends this week after nine years on the air. Among the many reasons to miss what the New York Times called Stephen Colbert's "elaborate parody of a bloviating political talk show host" is his way with words. One that stands above the rest is truthiness, the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2005.
In an interview with Colbert (as himself, not his put-upon persona) for a 2010 New York Times On Language column, our own Ben Zimmer got the inside scoop on Colbert's take on this ideal "silly word that would feel wrong in your mouth."
BZ: I was a big supporter of "truthiness" from the early days, back when it was selected as Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. I was there lobbying for it.
SC: Really? You were there, literally?
BZ: I was on the scene, yes.
SC: You're a member of the American Dialect Society?
BZ: I'm on the Executive Council of the American Dialect Society.
SC: Holy cow. Well then, thank you for pushing for it, because I married an English major. Getting a Word of the Year is the closest I'll ever come to having six-pack abs. That's maybe the sexiest thing I could do, to have a word recognized.
BZ: Now that it's in the New Oxford American Dictionary, that's got to be even better. You're even mentioned in the entry.
SC: Yeah. That's a real turn-on.
BZ: I know five years is a long time, but can you recall how it came to be? What was the flash of inspiration?
SC: "And it came to pass..." We had been in pre-production for eight weeks, and we had talked a lot about what the show was about. We had decided we were going to do this thing called "The Word." So the very first one, I said, well, this has got to be a sort of thesis statement for the show in general. And I thought, it's really about feelings rather than thought. That's really what the debate is about — it's like what feels right to you, as opposed to what you know is right. We wrote this fairly simple argument about what was appealing about feeling rather than thinking.
Originally the word was just "truth." And I thought, "Nah, it's not dumb enough," because I wanted the first word to be a joke. I wanted everything to be a joke. And it's not even really about truth. I'm not asking people what truth is, because truth is too easily associated with fact. So I said, "Well, it's not truth. It's like truth. It's truthish. It's truthy." But I needed a noun. So I said, "It's truthiness."
That was late in the day. We had already written "The Word," and it was about four o'clock. It was right before we went down to rehearsal. And it was all summed up in the last line, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you." So the word itself was an afterthought when "truth" didn't seem to capture it. It was a last-minute addition.
BZ: Why do you say "truth" wasn't dumb enough?
SC: I wasn't talking about truth. I wanted a silly word that would feel wrong in your mouth. You know, "truthiness" sounds wrong, because truth should be absolute — even though we all have truths and mine isn't the same as yours. "What is truth?" said Pilate. But even though we all have our own truths, they are absolute. By saying "truthiness," you're implying that what you're saying is only an "ish" of the absolute.
What I liked it about it was, it names that what I'm saying is not accurate. It names that what I'm saying is not really true. But what's really true is not important. The "-iness" overtly states that.
BZ: That "-iness" has now been called the Colbert Suffix. I don't know if you've seen that.
SC: No, I have not. That's wonderful. I've got to tell my English-major wife that.
BZ: You can see it in the title of the new book by Charles Seife, Proofiness.
SC: That's fantastic. That's great. Actually, I don't use "truthiness" anymore. I probably haven't used it in four years. It's like our thesis statement — you can't restate that all the time. It's a baseline supposition of the show. And it's essentially a joke, and you don't want to repeat your joke over and over again.
BZ: Other people are doing that for you.
SC: Right, which is fine with me, but I just don't use it anymore. I would if you pressed me on it, but it's just not fresh enough for me to use over and over again. I still like the word. I'm still litigious about it.
SC: Right, by not naming me at all! There was an article about it that didn't even mention me! That was so wonderful to be mad about. I was so excited to be upset. It's just more of the liberal media! It was just a perfect expression of my character's anger.
BZ: You needed a vendetta, and they served it up to you.
SC: And then we got to report on the fact that they weren't reporting on me, and they reported on me being upset at their lack of reporting, and I reported on them reporting on their lack of reporting on me. It was just a wonderful masturbatory recursion loop. It was beautiful.
BZ: You were able to milk that for a while, but once it ran its course you felt it was best to retire the word?
SC: Until the next year when Webster's named it their Word of the Year. And then we did something on the Oxford American earlier this year. If somebody mentions it, anything that gives me content is great. But things like "wikiality" are other expressions of that — whatever we agree the truth is. And right now, things that we can all agree to be afraid of, is just another expression of that. It's what we all know to be afraid of, and we don't even have to name it, really.
BZ: And that's what your rally on October 30th will be about.
SC: The rally's going to keep fear alive.
BZ: But the groundswell originally was to call it "The Rally to Restore Truthiness."
SC: Well, I think that's a wonderful idea, but I don't think we actually need to restore it. I think it is perfectly healthy. I think if you just look around you, I doubt that many people in American politics are acting on the facts. Everybody on both sides is acting on the things that move them emotionally the most. And that is the most successful way to behave. By keeping fear alive, we are keeping truthiness alive at the same time. Action out of emotion is all that truthiness is about — making your decisions based upon how you feel. Right now, it seems like fear is the strongest emotion that motivates us.
BZ: Looking back on the past five years, are you surprised that "truthiness" has had such staying power?
SC: I'm surprised that I'm still on the air. I expected to do 32 shows and be gone. So any reference people might make to our show or to me is just gravy. I'm absolutely surprised, and I don't mean to keep beating this drum, but showing your verbal worth to your English-major wife is really great. Mostly I do dumb things, and to have the stupid things I do end up in the newspaper of record, shall we say, is the greatest and most wonderful surprise.
I don't know if it was the idea that caught on or the word that caught on. It has to be a combination of both, I guess.
BZ: The way that you know that the word has really succeeded is when people use it without reference to you. It has a life of its own beyond you now, free in the world.
SC: That's nice. You hate to see your kids grow up, but you know you've succeeded as a parent if they can go off on their own.
Interested in more truthiness? Here, find Orin Hargraves' 2006 summation of the controversy for his Language Lounge column.