Around 4 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2005, Stephen Colbert was searching for a word. Not just any word, but one that would fit the blowhard persona that he was presenting that night on the premiere episode of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” He once described his faux-pundit character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot,” and the word he was looking for had to be sublimely idiotic.
During the rehearsal, Colbert was stuck on what term to feature for the inaugural segment of “The Word,” a spoof of Bill O’Reilly’s “Talking Points.” Originally, he and the writers selected the word truth, as distinguished from those pesky facts. But as Colbert told me in a recent interview (refreshingly, he spoke to me as the real Colbert and not his alter ego), truth just wasn’t “dumb enough.” “I wanted a silly word that would feel wrong in your mouth,” he said.
What he was driving at wasn’t truth anyway, but a mere approximation of it — something truthish or truthy, unburdened by the factual. And so, in a flash of inspiration, truthiness was born. In that night’s broadcast, he imagined the disdain his coinage would engender among elitist dictionary types. “Now I’m sure some of the Word Police, the wordinistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word,’ ” he said. As I pointed out at the time on the linguistics blog Language Log, truthiness already appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary under the adjective truthy. To be sure, it was exceedingly rare before 2005, but it had been recorded as a somewhat playful variant of truthfulness since the early 19th century.
Regardless of its pre-Colbert history, truthiness in its satirical new meaning charmed many a wordinista. A few months after its debut on “The Colbert Report,” at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society (A.D.S.) in Albuquerque, it was selected as the 2005 Word of the Year. At the meeting, I was an unabashed supporter of the choice, doing my part to make sure it beat out such worthy adversaries as podcast and sudoku. The selection received a surprising amount of press attention, with Colbert himself stoking the flames by picking a fight with the Associated Press, which had unaccountably omitted any mention of “The Colbert Report” in the Word of the Year article that went out over the wires.
On the A.D.S. mailing list, society members expressed bemusement at the role they had unexpectedly played in bringing truthiness into wider circulation. “Like astronomers witnessing the birth of a nova,” wrote Allan Metcalf, the society’s executive secretary, “we are watching the nativity and infancy of a new word that has the possibility of becoming a permanent addition to the vocabulary. And we have been midwives.”
Ronald R. Butters, the former chairman of Duke University’s linguistics program, was not impressed. “Truthiness is not a lexicological nova,” he countered on the mailing list, predicting that it was a flash in the pan that would “go the way of bushlips, and about as quickly.” Bushlips, meaning “insincere political rhetoric,” was the first A.D.S. Word of the Year, in 1990 (when Bush the elder reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge), and it soon ended up on the scrapheap of history.
Five years later, truthiness has proved to be no bushlips. It has even entered the latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, published earlier this year, with Colbert explicitly credited in the etymology. In an e-mail, Butters acknowledged that he was clearly wrong about the word’s staying power but said he still considers it nothing more than a “stunt word,” calling it “a hokey, unnaturally contrived coinage.”
For many other observers, though, there is something undeniably appealing about how truthiness signifies ersatz truth, so much so that the neologism has spawned numerous imitators ending in -iness — what the Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called “the Colbert suffix.” In 2007, Meghan Daum of The Los Angeles Times used “fame-iness” to refer to Paris Hilton-style celebrity, while Ben Goldacre of The Guardian mocked an author’s superficial footnotes as providing “an air of ‘referenciness.’ ” The latest in the “X-iness” parade is the title of Charles Seife’s new book, “Proofiness,” defined by Seife as “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” Seife, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, told me that the title is very much a homage to Colbert. He credits his wife with recognizing during the writing of the book that his topic was “the mathematical analogue of truthiness.”
The enduring influence of truthiness has also been felt at Indiana University, where a team of information scientists has designed software to detect the propagation of political misinformation on Twitter. The project leader, Filippo Menczer, recalled that while the team was brainstorming about a name for the research tool, one of his graduate students suggested Truthy. “Everyone agreed it was perfect,” Menczer said. Contributors are now busy disentangling reliable political Twitter posts from those that are merely truthy.
Colbert, for his part, said that he’s amazed at how far truthiness has come. But as others have spread the word, he hasn’t felt the need to use it much himself. After Glenn Beck held a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Colbert’s fans clamored for their own “Restoring Truthiness” event; Colbert has chosen instead to lead a “March to Keep Fear Alive” in Washington on Oct. 30. Truthiness, Colbert pointed out, is in no need of restoring, since it continues to define those who appeal to raw feelings at the expense of facts. “I doubt that many people in American politics are acting on the facts,” he observed ruefully. “Everybody on both sides is acting on the things that move them emotionally the most.”