Monday, January 16, 2006


Cynthia has touched on the word-of-the-year issue, in the form of a Dan Neil article that comments on Webster's feeble year-end stab at relevance and publicity. But forget Webster's, the real news is over on the AP story on the even more obscure American Dialect Society's choice: Truthiness.

Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said "truthiness" means "truthy, not facty."

"The national argument right now is, one, who's got the truth and, two, who's got the facts," he said. "Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we're not going make much progress."

Viewers of Stephen Colbert's new show The Colbert Report will immediately recognize "truthiness" as a very Colbert-esque word, even if they didn't see the episode where he devoted a segment to coining and defining it.

"I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight's word: 'truthiness'. Now I'm sure some of the 'word police', the 'wordanistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'Hey, that's not a word'. Well, anyone who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. ...

"I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know, with their heart.

Now Colbert is raising an ironical stir about not being credited as the creator of "truthiness" in the AP story. Amazingly, Michael Adams, the guy quoted above, has the balls to continue not crediting Colbert.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a definition for "truthy" dating back to the 1800s. It's defined as "characterized by truth" and includes the derivation "truthiness."

Michael Adams, a visiting associate professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, pointed to that definition and has said Colbert's claim to inventing the word is "untrue." (Adams served as the expert opinion in the initial AP story.)

"The fact that they looked it up in a book just shows that they don't get the idea of truthiness at all," Colbert said Thursday. "You don't look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut."

Though slight, the difference of Colbert's definition and the OED's is essential. It's not your typical truth, but, as The New York Times wrote, "a summation of what (Colbert) sees as the guiding ethos of the loudest commentators on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN."

That difference is also essential since Colbert's definition is exactly what Adams described in the original article. If truthiness still meant "characterized by truth," it wouldn't be the word of the year at all. The word as it existed in Oxford's Old Man Dictionary is not really the word under discussion. Colbert did coin the new definition of truthiness, or at the very least popularized it, and making truthiness the word of the year without even mentioning him is like discussing the phrase "jump the couch" without referencing Tom Cruise.

The deliberate omissions and continuing denials of Colbert's importance by Michael Adams and the AP are even more glaring when you consider that even the award giver itself, the ADS, cited Colbert in their press release:

In January 2006, the American Dialect Society announced that truthiness was selected as its 2005 Word of the Year [4]. The Society described their rationale as follows:

'In its 16th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted truthiness as the word of the year. First heard on the Colbert Report, a satirical mock news show on the Comedy Channel [sic], truthiness refers to the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Stephen Colbert put it, "I don’t trust books. They're all fact, no heart."'

The press release was changed later on the website to [include]:

'Other meanings of the word date as far back as 1824.'

This change was likely made to reflect the fact that word had existed prior to the October 17 show.

Maybe Adams' latest quote was just trying to cover his ass on the existence of the word, but it's presented as a defense of the original article. Suspicious!


Sarah said...

I'm listening to an interview the San Francisco Chronicle's television review, Tim Goodman, did with Stephen Colbert. It's here if you're interested in taking a listen. Anyway, about halfway through the third part, he starts talking about the whole "truthiness" thing, and he mentions how gleeful he was at reading the article (that didn't mention him), because it meant he could develop a persecution complex for his character on the Report. said...

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