« previous post | next post »

The Colbert Suffix -iness rises again, this time in the title of Charles Seife's latest book, Proofiness, subtitled The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Viking, officially to be released next week). I read a brief review by Janet Maslin in the NYT on Thursday, and now Steven Strogatz has done a more substantial review for tomorrow's Book Review (on-line here). Strogatz (a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell) on the truthiness-proofiness connection:

The numerical cousin of truthiness is proofiness: “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.”

Strogatz's summary of the book:

A few other recent books have explored how easily we can be deceived — or deceive ourselves — with numbers. But “Proofiness” reveals the truly corrosive effects on a society awash in numerical mendacity. This is more than a math book; it’s an eye-opening civics lesson.

This is Language Log, so I'm going to focus on the word proofiness. But first a punning illustration (by Leonardo Sonnoli) from Strogatz's review:

It all started with Stephen Colbert's truthiness, which then begat faminess, referenciness, and justiciness. The history on Language Log:

BZ, 10/26/05: Truthiness or trustiness? (link)

AZ, 3/1/07: Get Fuzzy gets playful (link), including various extensions of –ness, among them the Colbert Suffix in truthiness and faminess

AZ, 3/2/07: In the tradition of truthiness and faminess (link), on referenciness

AZ, 5/12/07: Zippy’s suffixiness (link), with a section on –iness

The first and last of these make the crucial morphological point: in addition to words in -i-ness (with connotatively neutral Adj-forming -y suffixed to N, and then abstract-N-forming -ness suffixed to that Adj), there are now such words with a disparaging variant of -y that has connotations of "falseness, inauthenticity, or masquerade" (as I put it in my Zippy piece), so that the whole package -iness can be seen as a suffix — the Colbert Suffix — deriving disparaging abstract Ns from base Ns directly: faminess from fame, proofiness from proof.

The existence of an intermediate Adj in -y then isn't necessary for the creation of a disparaging N in -iness, although the Adj can be inferred from the N in -iness, by a kind of back-formation: "well, that's not actually proof of your claim, it's just proofy".

Comments are closed.