Monday, April 24, 2006


Chaka, what are your thoughts on the word "truthiness"?
The story behind the word can be found at wikepedia here.
Basically it was sort of invented by Stephen Colbert, the comedic genius, and then all of a sudden it was accepted as 2005's word of the year by some sort of organization. Anyway, is this a true word in your opinion? Or do we have to give it time to be codified and adopted universally before it actually becomes a word of sorts? And can someone just make up new definitions when they feel they should?

ps - unfurl the sails, mateys!


Linus said...

consider them unfurled !

Chaka said...

Well, I'm reading up on the issue at Wikipedia, I just wanted to pause and note that University of Minnesota professor Anatoly Lieberman (who teaches great seminars on the history of English words and lexicography) is cited as an authority.

Rah rah rah ski u mah!

Pirate Jimmy said...

I took two classes by him! Scandinavian Mythology (which you recommended if I remember correctly) and then German Folklore.

Chaka said...

So is "truthiness" a word? If I have to answer yes or no, I'll answer yes, because I have a fairly broad definition of a word. But answering just yes or no would be boring and waste far less of my time. So let's look at this in greater detail:

On the level of word formation, the construction of the word is valid, although slightly unusual. It takes the word "truth" and adds the derivational morpheme "-i-" or "-y," a productive suffix that changes nouns into adjectives. (This is a different /i/ than the one discussed under the post about cookies). Then another derivational suffix, "-ness" is added, changing the adjective back into a noun. So the word has been legitimately produced from existing English words and productive morphemes, although in terms of its elements, it's not clear how the meaning of the word should differ from "truth."

This process explains both the origination of the word at an earlier point in English (the example listed in the OED) and Colbert's coinage. The two really should be considered different words; I don't think Colbert had likely ever heard of the older word--his was a fresh coinage, I imagine. The original coinage was straightforward and eventually died out, being largely redundant with the simple word "truth." Of course the redundancy is quite fitting for Colbert's ironic meaning, that is, truth AND NOT fact.

Chaka said...

On the syntactic level, "truthiness" seems to be a legitimate word as well. It can be used in sentences in the same ways as other abstract nouns.

So because the word is formed like real words and behaves syntactically like a word, we can be confident that it can be used to communicate in discourse--provided that the speaker and the hearers have some common idea of what the word means.

Thus we begin the socio-linguistics.

Chaka said...

The main evidence that "truthiness" has become a legitimate word is its usage by relatively few "speakers" who have the ability to reach many "hearers." Members of the media such as Colbert and AP and NYT writers are having conversations using the word (although many of them are metalinguistic, discussions of the word itself rather than using the word). To what extent the word is being used by the public is unknown--I've never heard anyone use it "in real life."

One might ask why the word has become well-known in journalistic circles. I would point out that the word fills a gap in the vocabulary of that community. I think Wikipedia's comparison to "double-think" is very appropriate, but "truthiness" might actually capture the idea better.

(The Couch: So you're saying that Colbert is a better writer than Orwell. Me: over short distances)

The journalistic community experiences conversations with people who disagree with them and seem to to so sincerely and in defiance of fact. The word describes (and more relevantly, rationalizes) that experience. The word gives them a category in which to place such arguments, thereby dismissing it.

To the extent that other communities experience similar forms of disagreement, the word "truthiness" will fulfill a similar need and will probably be adopted.