Five years of "truthiness"

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My latest On Language column for The New York Times Magazine celebrates the fifth anniversary of Stephen Colbert's (re)invention of "truthiness" — a word we began tracking here on Language Log soon after it appeared on the premiere episode of "The Colbert Report." (See this post and links therein.) I got a chance to interview Colbert himself, and my latest Word Routes column for the Visual Thesaurus features an extended excerpt of the interview. Here's an excerpt of the excerpt:

BZ: I was a big supporter of "truthiness" from the early days, back when it was selected as Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. I was there lobbying for it.

SC: Really? You were there, literally?

BZ: I was on the scene, yes.

SC: You're a member of the American Dialect Society?

BZ: I'm on the Executive Council of the American Dialect Society.

SC: Holy cow. Well then, thank you for pushing for it, because I married an English major. Getting a Word of the Year is the closest I'll ever come to having six-pack abs. That's maybe the sexiest thing I could do, to have a word recognized.

BZ: Now that it's in the New Oxford American Dictionary, that's got to be even better. You're even mentioned in the entry.

SC: Yeah. That's a real turn-on.

Read the rest here.

[Update: And see the clip that started it all here.]

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Truthiness
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive


  1. Rhacodactylus said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 3:13 am

    What can i say, Neologisms are hot!


  2. Kylopod said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    I think one of the main reasons the word "truthiness" so captured people's imagination was that it was a near-perfect description of Bush Administration policy, from climate science to WMDs in Iraq. Colbert in this interview says that truthiness is still alive and well, and I suppose that is true, and explains the word's continuing popularity; a word this good cannot possibly be restricted to one administration, or one side of the political aisle. But it had to start somewhere powerful, and I have a hunch that it will fade as our memories of Bush do.

  3. Vinaigrette Girl said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    I'm married to the UK equivalent of an English major, and empthaise with Mr. Colbert on this, as in so many other ways. I shall be using 'truthiness' as a sidewise swipe at 'authenticity' (amongst other usages) in many instances, from politics to cookie dough recipes. I reckon to have at least another 30 years ifthe Lord says and the creek don't rise, so 'truthiness' will live long after Bush has become a fairground bogeyman.

  4. dirk alan said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    boob jobs are falsiness

  5. John Cowan said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    Vinaigrette Girl: Of what regiment?

  6. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    This is the seminal episode:

    It took me a while to find it… may I suggest adding it to the entries here and at VT?

    [(bgz) Done.]

  7. Bloix said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    A predecessor to "truthiness" was "factoid," a word invented by Norman Mailer in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, where he used it to mean false bits of biography that pr men planted about Hollywood stars. For a while it appeared to be taking hold to mean any widely repeated but false statement, so that you could say that "The Great Wall is visible from space" or "the Eskimos have 47 words for snow" are factoids. Unfortunately "factoid" was dumbed down by the media to mean any interesting factual tidbit. Hence the need for truthiness.

    But the difference between "factoid" and "truthiness" is the difference between Mailer and his era and Colbert and his. "Factoid" is an intentionally ugly word. It communicates with heavy sarcasm the contempt that Mailer had for the pr system he was writing about. "Truthiness" is much lighter in feel. It's playful, knowing, arch, and so sly that you almost believe in the cluelessness of its originator. It's like the difference between Herblock and Tom Toles.

  8. Kylopod said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    "Truthiness" is much lighter in feel. It's playful, knowing, arch, and so sly that you almost believe in the cluelessness of its originator.

    Well, consider who Colbert was imitating. His show is broadly patterned after The O'Reilly Factor, but his persona isn't really that of the imperious, exacting O'Reilly. He seems modeled more on the popular image of George W. Bush, as an easygoing simpleton who makes his decisions "from the gut." The irony needed to sustain this routine is a bit deceptive, making the satire seem gentler than it is. It lacks the overtly caustic flavor of "factoid" because it's all hidden in Colbert's chummy effervescence. That's probably why Bush himself didn't appear too ruffled when Colbert performed it at the White House dinner; maybe he thought he was being roasted. Or maybe it's just in Bush's nature to react that way.

  9. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    Stephen Colbert earned a special place in my heart when he got an invitation to speak – apparently from factions that didn't realize they were being lampooned – at the Republican National Convention in 2004. When he got the microphone, he played the "Stephen Colbert, idiot conservative commentator" part for which he is now famous, beautifully. That was also the moment when, in the words of one of my cohorts, the man proved he "has the biggest balls in the world," itself a lovely expression.

    If I weren't a registered Green, I would cheerfully have nominated Colbert for office on the Republican ticket, right then, with the slogan, "Dare to Speak Truthiness to Power!"

    [(bgz) Wow, talk about truthiness. Colbert wasn't invited to speak at the RNC in 2004 — that was a year before his show was even on the air. You're probably thinking of his 2006 appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where he was invited as a comedian, not a commentator. Pesky facts.]

  10. Boris said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    The first time I saw the word factoid was, I believe, on one of the cable news channels years ago. It was a recurring feature airing before commercial breaks featuring a little random interesting, but pretty useless bit of trivia, things like "Although only 1.27 square miles in area, Union City, NJ is the most densely populated city in the United States"

    Since then, all instances of the word I've seen fit roughly into that pattern. I've never heard the word factoid being used to imply something that is false.

  11. Bloix said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    Boris- right, that's what factoid has come to mean (CNN uses it that way), and it's driven out the original meaning. Wikipedia has a good article on the origin of factoid:

    Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper", and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean "similar but not the same".

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