Lexicon Valley

Truthiness: BS Gets a Colbert Bump  

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

Finally, we have arrived at the Stephen Colbert of BS words—a term coined in the first episode of The Colbert Report back in 2005.

My book Bullshit: A Lexicon includes a few recent words that name specific types of BS (like humblebrag and mansplaining), but I reckon truthiness is the best recent word for bullshit. How did we live without a word for statements that have the ring but not the reality of truth? Truthiness is a godsend, particularly during the current election season, which already feels longer than some geological eras.

But I love this word for another reason: I had a hand in its success.

Well, more like a toe, but still. I was part of the American Dialect Society meeting that voted truthiness Word of the Year for 2005. At that point, the word wasn’t remotely successful: It was an oddball candidate nominated by American Heritage Dictionary executive editor Steve Kleinedler. But the term took hold because of its cleverness and relevance.

Truthiness also raised a lot of issues about what the heck a Word of the Year should be. Should the WOTY be the most prominent new word? Should it be an omnipresent word, regardless of newness? Or should it be a word that simply sums up the year? Truthiness completely failed on the first two counts, but gloriously succeeded on the third, as it felt like the perfect label and rebuke of the bullshit of that time, when America seemed more bamboozled and hornswoggled than usual.

Truthiness wasn’t a choice immediately loved by all. I remember at least one peeved language maven storming out of the WOTY election, as though we’d just chosen lol as word of the century. After the meeting, I remember going out to eat with a bunch of word mavens (including Michael Adams, who would go on to discuss the word on The Colbert Report), and we told the greeter we had chosen truthiness as WOTY. She looked at us as if we had asked to sit in the heroin section.

But despite some initial consternation and confusion, we “done good,” as they say, lighting the spark that made truthiness a legitimately successful word. These days, truthiness can be found all over the place—and the uses that don’t mention Colbert are the best indicator of its success:

“The ongoing debate surrounding reproductive rights in the United States is often heavy on assumptions and light on facts. One of the issues most mired in truthiness is whether viewing an ultrasound has an effect on a woman’s decision to have an abortion.”
, Oct. 8, 2015

“There are lots of efforts made to fact-check claims and lots of times claims are difficult to explain because their ‘truthiness’ depends on what yardstick is used.”
Winnipeg Free Press, Sept. 18, 2015

“One reason for doing so is that I thought the media, often pilloried for just reporting what the candidates tell them when it comes to this sort of thing, performed notably well in this case, digging deeply into the numbers, referencing historical failures of these sorts of policies, and generally getting it factually correct. That’s worth applauding in our age of ‘truthiness’ where ‘he-said, she-said’ too often poses as balanced analysis.”
Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2015

“More on off-label marketing expansion: a U.S. District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction for Amarin over its prescription omega-3 fish oil icosapent ethyl (Vascepa) on the grounds that truthful marketing is protected by the First Amendment. But maybe it’s just ‘truthiness,’ considering the heavy industry influence on the papers being used as ‘truthful’ information, CardioBrief’s Larry Huston notes.”
MedPage Today, Aug. 17, 2015

For insight into the primordial origins of truthiness, check out this interview with Colbert by Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. Colbert revealed he wanted, among other things, “a silly word that would feel wrong in your mouth.” Who knew the word would also feel so right?

Previously on BS Word of the Day