2016 Oxford Dictionaries WOTY: Post-Truth

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The Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word Of The Year is post-truth, which they define as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". Here's their graph of its recent rise in frequency over the past seven months:

They offer this history:

The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix  in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).  

Also post-painterly (1964).

Post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world’. There is evidence of the phrase ‘post-truth’ being used before Tesich’s article, but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.

This choice seems to have struck a chord — in keeping with the  post-truth theme, I'll assert without factual foundation that the media response to this year's choice has been larger than the response to last year's choice (of the tears-of-joy emoji).

It seems to me that Oxford Dictionaries' definition of post-truth –"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief" — misses a key point about the phenomenon, which is that post-truth thinking is usually a matter of cultural cognition. The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School defines this as

… the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

And cultural cognition, in this sense, is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, you could argue that the commitment to truth in public discourse has never been higher. Not that it's very high. But maybe what's changed is not the relative truthiness of the public conversation, but rather the relative lack of apparent or enforced consensus in certain societies about which factoids to accept. Or even just the extent of meta-commentary on the question.



  1. Ray said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 6:25 am

    I hear “post-” as “beyond-but-not-altogether-abandoning” (as in ‘post-modernism’ or ‘post-racial’ ‘post-national’) and there’s a hint of critique in ‘post-’, a signal that something’s wrong/inadequate/futile with the current framework (truth, modernism, nationhood, race) while not having yet landed on a replacement set of premises/frameworks.

  2. Stan Carey said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 7:18 am

    'commitment to truth in public discourse has never been higher'

    Meanwhile, fake news has been outpacing real news on Facebook.

  3. Q. Pheevr said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    Given that they call post- a prefix here (which I agree with), it seems odd to describe post-truth as a "compound word." I would normally use that term to describe a word that contains (at least) two roots, not one formed by affixation.

  4. languagehat said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    I have never seen or heard the alleged word "post-truth"; I freely grant that this may be because I do not immerse myself in the writings of the political commentariat, but I still submit that this choice was made for purely ideological rather than linguistic/lexicographic reasons, and it makes me even more contemptuous of the whole "word of the year" phenomenon. If you want people to take your dictionaries seriously, don't treat them like cereal or pop songs.

  5. JJM said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    Google hits this morning for "post-truth": 771,000.

    (As a sort of benchmark, "transgender" garners 64.7 million. And even runner-up "hygge" garners 10 million!)

    And I would add that I'm pretty certain I'd never even heard of the term until it was announced.

    They must live in a bubble over at Oxford Dictionaries.

  6. Cervantes said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    And the chartjunk above is awful, too.

    Now get off my lawn, Oxford Dictionaries. Scram.

  7. Rube said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Count me as another one who had never heard the word of the year until it was announced. Obviously this doesn't mean much, but it's the first time I remember it happening.

    [(myl) Could have been worse. The list of runners-up seems to have been headed by

    hygge, n. [mass noun] a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)


  8. Adam Roberts said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    From Twitter, yesterday: "It is a post-truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be a raging self-obsessed misogynist."

  9. David L said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    I'm with Rube and languagehat — never heard of this term, and in fact I do follow political news fairly closely. But maybe this is a twitter/social media word more than an MSM word. I stay away from the former.

  10. Rube said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:01 am

    @myl: No, never heard of "hygge", either, but I do like the concept.

  11. Stan Carey said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    FWIW, I've seen it a lot in the last six months or so, not just on Twitter but in news stories. A search on theguardian.com, for example, shows many non-WOTY examples in headlines this year (and, tellingly, in 2012).

  12. Cervantes said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    The construction is neither new this year nor limited to "social media," etc. Examples follow.

    Towards the end of the Bush vs. Clinton election campaign in 1992, Oscar-winning screen-writer and novelist Steve Tesich asked a question: "Living in the Post-Truth Era: Why Do We Welcome Government Lies?" (Utne Reader, November/December).

    A decade later, writing in Christianity Today, convicted Nixon henchman Charles Colson courageously blamed postmodernism for "the recent trend of lying" in our "post-truth society." Criticizing alleged liars from Joseph Ellis and Stephen Ambrose to David Brock and even Tawana Brawley, he was noticeably silent about himself and his former boss.

    In 2004 Eric Alterman argued in his book, When Presidents Lie, that the "post-truth presidency" was exemplified by another President Bush, George W., who seemed to be "remarkably unconcerned with the question of whether he even appeared to be speaking truthfully."

    Again in 2004, Ralph Keyes wrote a book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, in which he attacked Bill Clinton and Al Gore for their false statements and went on to excoriate George W. Bush and, indeed, the entire Baby Boom generation for refusing to face, never mind speak, the truth.

    In December 2011, inspired largely by Mitt Romney, Paul Krugman in his NYT column wrote about "The Post-Truth Campaign" and issued us a "welcome to post-truth politics."

    Same election again: in the September 2012 issue of Political Insight, Inderjeet Parmar (City University, London), wrote that:

    On the face of it, the US appears to have fully embraced "post-truth politics", a condition in which practically anything may be said and taken seriously about almost any subject regardless of its connection with reality. The leadership groups of both the Republican and Democratic parties are implicated in a politics seemingly disconnected from reality. […] In this sense, Tanzania’s former President Julius Nyerere was right: the US is a one-party state, albeit one with two parties.

    Same election yet again: an editorial in The Nation asserted that:

    The Republican Party is not fretting about fact-checkers. Far from it; the GOP has now fully entered the netherworld of post-truth politics, from the wholesale denial of climate change to spreading fairy tales about Obama’s welfare policy. Romney and Ryan know they’re going to need big lies to win. That’s pathetic, but it could work—especially if the mainstream media continue to evade their basic duty to call the GOP on these whoppers.

    And again in The Nation a few issues later, Eric Alterman had a cover story about "Campaign Trivia and Post-Truth Politics."

    (These are just a few examples.)

  13. languagehat said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    OK, you've convinced me I've doubtless seen it before. I continue to think it's a silly "word of the year."

  14. majolo said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    I've seen this concept referred to many times this year but I believe the term I've seen more often is "post-fact".

  15. Cervantes said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    I continue to think it's a silly "word of the year."

    Sillier than the general notion of there being a "word of the year" every year?

  16. languagehat said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    They're both silly, but I'd say this particular choice adds an extra layer of silliness (or, if you prefer, tendentiousness) onto the already silly concept.

  17. Johan P said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    I've heard both "post-truth" and "hygge" frequently in the last year, if we're continuing doing the anecdotal count. The former has been a significant feature in discourse about Putin's Russia, especially, and I definitely saw it there before it was associated with Trump.

    Hygge, on its end, is a huge fashion word in Britain, and has spread like wildfire this year in newspaers and even in a surprisingly broad range of books. I think most people in Britain, at least its more middle-class residents, will have encountered Hygge.

  18. Simon Spero said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    [Disclaimer: I've never had a coinage rank higher than a Word of the Day, and that was just M/W]

    Post-truth is obscure, vague, and blissfully unaware of any post-war Epistemology or Philosophy of Science.
    The runners-up are also not great- e.g. there does not seem to be a single, stable sense for alt-right, and the suggested definition does not adequately capture this.

    This the 2016 of words of the year.

  19. Haamu said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

    Post-truth feels post-true to me, which makes it somewhat autological.

    Let's start with the given new definition of post- as ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.' What's omitted here is the connotation that the change is irreversible. With the original definition of post-X, X is in the past and is never coming back. But all of these new post-Xs — truth, nationalism, racism — are definitely coming back. They always come back.

    Thus we can say that we're in an age of post-truth, not because it's objectively true that truth is a thing of the past, but because the statement has a comfortable, post-truthy feel.

    My own sense is that truth is currently devalued through conflation with certainty (the subjective kind). We don't live in an age of post-truth so much as in an age of post-objectivity (using the latter term in a post-objective way).

  20. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    So hygge is basically gemütlichkeit?

    Yeah, I've never heard "Post-Truth" either. I call bBS on the idea of a compound word being considered a word or coinage anyway, so I would disqualify it right out the gate.

  21. Ken said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 2:24 pm


    As my Danish friend explained to me, basically yes, but hygge sounds so much friendlier. It's like a hug (I wonder if those words are related). I could do with some hygge in these post-truth times.

  22. Matt Juge said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    FWIW, my impression is that hygge is equally important to Norwegians as it is to Danes (I don't know about Swedes).

  23. Ryan said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    Ah, so are we back to "the awful German language" now?

    In any case, it seems to me that post-truth is really just a cousin to the Stephen Colbert-popularized truthiness.

  24. Chris C. said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    Less a cousin than exactly the same concept, phrased so as to be acceptable to the high-falutin'.

  25. Charles Antaki said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    Hygge seems to have burst in the scene in the UK, but never in anyone's talk (that I've heard). It seems to live exclusively in print, and even then only in the smug world of the lifestyle supplements. 'Word of the year' is a daft idea to be sure, but if it captures some pop culture sprite, it's got some merit.

  26. Jason said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

    Merriam/Webster gave "truthiness" WOTY in 2006. Oxford way behind the times as usual.

  27. Cervantes said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 8:05 pm


    hygge sounds so much friendlier. It's like a hug (I wonder if those words are related)

    Not that we know.

  28. Kivi Shapiro said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    I wonder if they wanted to use "bullshit" (c.f. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=22605) but couldn't muster the gumption.

  29. Jon said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 3:21 am

    I first came across "post-truth" during the Brexit campaign, when it was used to draw a parallel between Boris Johnson (campaigning for Brexit) and Donald Trump (then in the primary campaign). Both made statements that were blatantly false, but neither they nor their supporters were the slightest bit embarrassed when this was pointed out. Hence the meaning that for some, truth was irrelevant.

  30. Graeme said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 4:41 am

    If the OED definition is exclusive, it's a shame 'visceral appeal' hadn't been taken up instead.

    One WOTY might be silly. But the concept of encouraging folk to reflect on languages' dynamism and playfulness isn't.

  31. Faldone said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    Per JJM

    Google hits this morning for "post-truth": 771,000.

    I wonder how many of those are comments on OD's choice of post-truth as WotY.

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    FWIW, my impression is that hygge is equally important to Norwegians as it is to Danes (I don't know about Swedes).

    The word doesn't exist in that sense* in Swedish, but there's a related adjective hygglig meaning "nice, kind; adequate" (often used ironically, at least in my circles). The closest equivalent noun I can think of is gemyt, which is a German loan related to Gemütlichkeit. I don't think anyone would consider the concept particularly intrinsic to or characteristic of Swedish culture. In fact, one of the Swedish Wiktionary's example sentences speaks of it as characteristically Danish.

    * There's an unrelated hygge "area where the trees have been felled".

  33. Johan P said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    @Simon Spero and Haamu

    Aah, but "post-truth" is used in a very different context than relativising positivist truth statements. It's the dissociation of political campaigning, opinion-making and media from making statements of fact or suggesting policy, where if something has evidence to support it no longer matters. When Rossiya 1 shows fake footage that's easily exposed as fake, and they know it is, and they don't care, and it doesn't make a difference at all to their creibility, that "post-truth". It's Baudrillard's simulacrum, but where all suggestion of mimesis has been radically swept away.

    (In fact, one could argue that the movement of "post-" and its theoretical implications from academia to mainstream discourse is noteworthy in itself.)

  34. Johan P said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:25 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    All I can think of in a similar vein is mys, which is slightly different – more related to coziness, for one – but which conjures up similar images and is similarly lacking in straightforward English transation.

  35. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 9:47 am

    @Johan P

    I dunno if I've ever used mys outside the compound fredagsmys (approx. "cosy activities for Friday night"), which isn't something I say often either. But yeah, it's similar.

  36. mollymooly said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    Any WOTY ought to satisfy several criteria:
    1. be a lexical item, if not necessarily a single word
    2. be newly coined, or newly imported from a foreign language, or at least have a new sense, or at least have a sense that has become far more widely known and used in the past year
    3. describe a phenomenon which is new, or which at least has become far more widespread or widely recognised and discussed in the past year

    There is usually correlation between #2 and #3 ; having said which, is seems to me that "post-truth" scores better in #3 than #2. I easily recognise the word and its connection to Trump and Brexit; but I have never used it and can't remember any specific instance of reading or hearing it.

  37. bratschegirl said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    @Ryan: Colbert agrees with you! Extended bit in his opening monologue last night.

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    Is there a name for the opposite of the Recency Illusion, i.e. the "I haven't myself noticed this word/phrase at all, much less noticed a sharp uptick in its use, so I find your chart purporting to show a sharp recent increase in its usage counterintuitive" thing?

  39. Julian Hook said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    Scholars in music theory and musicology often write about "post-tonal music", referring to music written in the last century or so that does not conform to the traditional norms of tonality that governed Western musical practice for the previous couple of centuries. The word does not imply that there was no longer any tonal music being written (there's plenty of tonal 20th-century music), but it does seem to comport well with Oxford's explanation, "belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant" (perhaps "less important" or "less pervasive" would be more appropriate). However problematic it may be, "post-tonal" was presumably coined as a way of avoiding the (also problematic) "atonal". A Google Ngram shows that "post-tonal" began to turn up around 1945, then really took off around 1980.

    (As for me, I've seen "post-truth" all over the place this year, and I even wrote it myself in a letter to the editor, so I'm flummoxed by all the people in the comments here who claim to have never seen it. And I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I kind of enjoy Words of the Year—although something seems a little wrong about naming an Anything of the Year when we're only halfway through November.)

  40. JPL said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 5:41 am

    mollymooly @ 18Nov16, 11:24pm

    Hey, I like your comment; that's a good set of criteria.

    Most [interesting, important,etc.] newly recognized lexeme of the past year. There's the coining, and then there's the accepting by users and OED. Recently I think I coined the word 'betatted' as a substitution for "tattooed" in a description of Trump supporters I saw somewhere: something like, "…bearded, bare-armed, tattooed bikers …" (maybe "bandanna-wearing" was also in there, although if it was, I think I would have liked "bandanna-headed"). I thought it was a good word, but I'm not sure if anyone else noticed it. The original expression had a lot of 'b's, but I think adding my expression would be overdoing it.

    Be that as it may, I use the term 'term' to refer to a word (i.e., lexeme) used in a specialized sense, in a specialized context. The 'post-' prefix here is not a completely new form, but has taken on a new sense in the phrase 'post-truth'. Usually coining a term from a previously existing lexeme involves a differentiation (rather than "expansion") in meaning from the previous categorical structure, and is context-sensitive. The new term retains resonance from the previously existing category. The novelty here is in the prefix 'post-', and I would rather say it "has a meaning more like 'after a time in which the specified concept was important or relevant'."

    I'm not sure I like the term 'cultural cognition' ("hardly a new phenomenon"). Intellectual dishonesty in the public discourse is a big problem; the type of popular convention- determined "thinking" (or verbal reflexes) studied in the project probably could use a good new term to comprehend it, if indeed it is a unified phenomenon.

  41. Jichang Lulu said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 5:44 am

    Hygge 'cosiness' is as much of a quintessentially and untranslatably Danish concept as its translation equivalents are inseparable from their respective languages. Dutch gezelligheid is often imagined to have similar properties. Maybe it's just cross-culturally felt to be cosy to have your own unique cuddly concepts outsiders can't touch.

    Hygge owes much of its current trendiness to its recent commodification in Britain, but within the cosier Danosphere it's also in the news thanks to its inclusion in the Danmarkskanon. Said kanon is a set of twenty 'Danish values' curated by a ministry with the help of some academics. An online poll is being held to curate them down to ten, presumably intended for the next round of state-guided media buzz (舆论引导). Anyone can vote, regardless of Danishness status. Each IP can only vote once for each concept. (Indeed I think I just accidentally voted for value 'The Danish Language', so any haters should go and vote for the other nineteen.)

    As it happens, according to the Ordbog over det danske (S|s)prog, hygge in the cosiness/comfort sense is a late-18C loanword from a Norwegian verb 'console'. A recent NRK story about UK hygge hype says: "Among words like 'Brexit', 'Trumpism' and 'mic drop' we find the Norwegian word 'hygge'." The Danish noun and verb hygge are said to ultimately come from Old Norse (and Modern Icelandic) hyggja 'think; intend', from the same Proto-Germanic as e.g. Dutch geheugen 'memory'. I don't know if hyggja came to mean 'comfort' in Norwegian of its own accord or through contamination with another etymon.

    As Cervantes said, the post-graph is quite interesting. What are the units, and indeed the values, on the vertical axis? Why does the whole graph seem to be floating at some generic height? Maybe it's just an illustration of how post-factual chart gore can be used to click-appeal to the viscera?

    The word and concept of 'post-truth' are certainly quite old. I'd say the news in late 2016 is Oxford Dictionaries' embrace of it. Tarski must be rotating in his grave.

    As for English hug, Oxford Dictionaries dot com say it's likely related to Norwegian hugga 'comfort, console', but that doesn't even look Norwegian. They might have meant 'Old Norse', as there is an Icelandic hugga 'console'. (To the extent the entry is pre-post-truth-theoretical and they meant anything at all.) The Online Etymology Dictionary entry for hug makes more sense and does appear to link it to hygge.

    Said Online Etymology Dictionary also says of 'hug' as a noun: "1610s, a hold in wrestling, from hug (v.). Meaning 'an affectionate embrace' is from 1650s." Then again, the distinction between 'a wrestling hold' and 'an affectionate embrace' isn't always that clear.

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    If anything, the post-X pattern is sufficiently morphologically productive and generally semantically transparent that it is certainly possible that I have seen a bunch of examples and they just failed to register, because putting a new or different X into a pattern like that is not striking or memorable. I would tend to hold that against a given post-X combination if it were a candidate for WOTY, but no one asked my opinion.

  43. Cervantes said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

    As we (continue our ignominious) tumble into this brave, new world of post-truth politics, perhaps it is wise to recall what sometimes happens to those worthies who take a stand for actual (that is to say, pre-post-truth) truth. From a review of Aloys Winterling's biography of Caligula:

    [The Emperor's campaign against] double-speak turned out to have disastrous consequences. The story of the honours given to the favourite horse already hints at these when we see it not as a sensible cautionary tale, but as an instance of the lunacy it was trying to critique. There was in ancient Rome — as there always is — a grave danger in insisting on the ‘face value’ of communications, however honest it might at first seem. Such insistence can work in two diametrically opposite ways: it can reveal the absurdity of empty flattery, but it can also serve to make the absurd claims of the flatterer seem literally true. To develop Winterling’s argument a little: in Caligula’s world the rejection of coded language and double-speak had the effect of validating the absurd and extravagant claims about imperial power. It didn’t expose the suggestion that the emperor was a god as empty rhetoric or subtle metaphor, and so in a sense defuse the deification. Quite the reverse: if words must always mean what they say, then Caligula was divine.

    What is more, the aristocracy was humiliated in the process. There had been an important point to ‘empty flattery’ in the Augustan system. It could sometimes (as the story of the senators requesting an annual recitation of Caligula’s speech shows) be used by the flatterers as a mechanism of control over the object of their flattery. More often the very emptiness of it allowed the senators to play their part in praising the emperor without having to believe all they said. Strip the flattery of its emptiness, and the senators ended up looking ridiculous, as if they were committed to the words they were speaking. It was this humiliation, in Winterling’s view, that soon led to the violent rift between Caligula and the aristocracy — a rift that ended in his assassination.

    The reviewer is, of course, Mary Beard.

  44. Doreen said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 1:21 am

    I agree with Charles Antaki about the UK media-specific context of hygge. Now, it seems, the hygge backlash is here: " […] it is a trend that has been carefully concocted in the laboratory of London publishing houses, and then disseminated through the ready collaboration of an enthusiastic neophile press."

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