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Unreality Check

By most reliable measures, 2016 has been a very good year for fiction lovers. I'm not talking here about literature; I'm talking about the opposite of fact. Indeed, it's been a banner year for all the words we have at our disposal to say, "Nope, it just ain't so."

Let's start with one of the newest entries in the lexicon. In mid-November, Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth to be its word of the year, citing a 2,000 percent increase in usage compared to 2015. Post-truth, an adjective, means "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

Noting the spike, the Oxford blog credited "the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States"; for giving rise to the noun phrase post-truth politics.

Perhaps post-truth represents the natural evolution of truthiness, coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005 in the debut episode of The Colbert Report, the late-night news-satire show that ended its run in December 2014. Named as word of the year for 2005 by Merriam-Webster and for 2006 by the American Dialect Society, truthiness is "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."

Post-truth has been brazenly in evidence in fake news: stories with inflammatory headlines concocted by amateurs to generate clicks and revenue rather than to inform. Here there is no pretension of wishing something to be true (unless it's the wish to become very rich, as some teens in Macedonia have done). Fakery is the fully intentional practice of fraud and inauthenticity.

Fake was originally a cant, or jargon, word used by thieves and vagrants; the adjective first appeared in late-18th-century London, the verb ("to fake something") in 1812, and the noun in 1851. The word's origin is disputed; it may have come from the noun feak (rhymes with speak), which meant "a dangling curl of [artificial?] hair," and which may in turn be related to German fegen, "to furbish, sweep, or clean."; or fake may have come from Polari, the specialized British slang spoken by circus performers, actors, and criminals – the name is a corruption of Italian parlare, to speak. That suggests that its ultimate origin is Italian facciare, to make or do. In the earliest usages, to fake a person could mean to shoot, wound, cut, or kill him: to "do him in."

Fake news created by Macedonian teens to profit from the U.S. presidential election. None of the stories is true. Via Buzzfeed.

A number of other synonyms for post-truth come, like fake, from the underworld. Phony (spelled phoney in British English) first appeared in the late 1800s as an American colloquialism specific to horse racing – even more specifically to unofficial bookmakers who issued betting slips they had no intention of paying out. As with fake, no one's quite sure where phony came from, although there's a theory that it's connected to an Irish word, Anglicized as fawney, that means "finger ring." Phony's moment of glory, or infamy, came during the seven-month period between Germany's September 1939 invasion of Poland and the April 1940 invasion of Norway, a deceptive lull known in Britain as "the phoney war."

Grift and the word for its practitioner, grifter, also come from the American underworld, in this case the circus and carnival circuit. A grifter is a "confidence trickster" – confidence is the source of con – and grift is money made dishonestly. The word may come from graft, which in an old British English usage meant one's occupation but now, of course, can mean "money or advantage obtained by fraudulent means." The old sense of graft was "a digging," and is related to grave.

The Grifters (1990).

We can thank American carnival hucksters for yet another word about fakery: kayfabe. Today it's used mostly in connection with professional wrestling, where it means "the portrayal of staged events as 'real' or 'true'." Its etymology, like that of so many other slang terms, is unclear: It may be an alteration of "be fake," or it may come from the code name "Kay Fabian." As for huckster, it goes back as far as 1200, when it meant a peddler or seller of small goods; by the mid-16th century it could mean an amoral mercenary, and in the mid-20th century it became a term of opprobrium for advertisers. It was the title of a 1945 novel about ad men that was turned into a 1947 movie starring Clark Gable.

Bogus – fraudulent or fictitious – is another Americanism, dating back to at least 1827, when it referred to a machine for counterfeiting money. (Counterfeit comes from Old French; its literal meaning is "made in contrast" to the genuine article.) Alternatively, the word may be related to bogey, an old word for a frightening specter or even the Devil. Bogus Basin, now the site of a ski resort in Idaho, got its name during a 19th-century gold rush when con men hawked bogus "gold" dust liberally mixed with lead filings.

That glittering trick was a hoax, a deception by means of fabrication. The word first appeared in print in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1796; there have been attempts to connect it to hocus, as in hocus-pocus, but they aren't conclusive. One online source for clarity about fake news is HoaxBusters.

An even older word for this sort of ruse is sham, "something devised to impose upon, delude, or disappoint expectation." The word first appears as slang around 1677; the OED suggests that a connection with shame is "not impossible." Pillow sham is a North American term for a decorative covering placed over a pillow. (And ruse – a trick, stratagem, or wile – is a French borrowing from the language of hunting; it originally meant a detour made by a hunted animal to elude capture.)

The verb swindle – to obtain money through fraud – is a backformation from the noun swindler, which comes from German Schwindler: an "extravagant person" or a cheat. It's believed that the noun was introduced to London in the mid-18th century by German Jewish immigrants.

Spurious, which now simply means "false," had a different sense when it entered English in the late 1500s. It's borrowed directly from Latin, where it meant "born out of wedlock"; within a couple of decades it had acquired its more general meaning.

One term for intentional deception comes not from the Anglophone world but from Russian. Disinformation is a direct translation of Russian дезинформация, or "dezinformatsiya"; the original source may be French. A Cold War term coined by Soviet spy agencies, disinformation is intentionally false or misleading information spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences. (The definition is from the Wikipedia entry.) Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is unintentionally false.

Would you prefer to be more discreet when you talk about a person's reckless disregard for facts? There's a word for that, too: dissemble, "to hide or conceal behind a false appearance." The word itself is hiding behind a false front; it was originally dissimule, from an Old French source. Its spelling changed around the 16th century, possibly in imitation of resemble.

The American Prospect.

Then again, maybe euphemisms aren't your style. In that case, I suggest you opt for the oldest synonym in the dictionary, a word that's been recorded since the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History in the mid-10th century, and which has stayed with us, through various spelling alterations, down the centuries. In a single short syllable consisting of one consonant and one vowel sound, it tells the naked, unequivocal truth about falsehood. That word is lie.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 30th 2016, 7:08 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare. (He who knows not how to dissemble knows not how to rule.)

Then again, Absurdum est ut alios regat, qui seipsum regere nescit. (It is absurd that he should rule others who knows not how to rule himself.)

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