Truthiness

truthiness

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. American television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word in this meaning as the subject of a segment called ‘The Wørd’ during the 2005 pilot episode of his political satire program ‘The Colbert Report.’

By using this as part of his routine, Colbert satirized the misuse of appeal to emotion and ‘gut feeling’ as a rhetorical device in contemporaneous socio-political discourse. He particularly applied it to President George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Colbert later ascribed truthiness to other institutions and organizations, including Wikipedia. Colbert has sometimes used a mock Latin version of the term, ‘Veritasiness.’

Truthiness, although a ‘stunt word,’ was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society. Linguist and OED consultant Benjamin Zimmer pointed out that the word already had a history in literature and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, as a derivation of ‘truthy.’ Colbert explained the origin of his word thusly: ‘Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister …’

Colbert chose the word truthiness just moments before taping the premiere episode of ‘The Colbert Report,’ after deciding that the originally scripted word – ‘truth’ – was not absolutely ridiculous enough. ‘We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist,’ he explained. He introduced his definition in the first segment of the episode, saying: ‘Now I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word.’ Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.’

When asked in an out-of-character interview with The Onion’s ‘A.V. Club’ for his views on ‘the ‘truthiness’ imbroglio that’s tearing our country apart,’ Colbert elaborated on the critique he intended to convey with the word: ‘Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word… It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?… Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.’

During an interview in 2006 with Charlie Rose, Colbert stated: ‘I was thinking of the idea of passion and emotion and certainty over information. And what you feel in your gut, as I said in the first Wørd we did, which was sort of a thesis statement of the whole show – however long it lasts – is that sentence, that one word, that’s more important to, I think, the public at large, and not just the people who provide it in prime-time cable, than information.’

Frank Rich referenced truthiness in ‘The New York Times’ in 2008, describing the strategy of John McCain’s presidential campaign as being ‘to envelop the entire presidential race in a thick fog of truthiness.’ Rich explained that the campaign was based on truthiness because ‘McCain, Sarah Palin, and their surrogates keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it.’ Rich also noted, ‘You know the press is impotent at unmasking this truthiness when the hardest-hitting interrogation McCain has yet faced on television came on ‘The View.’ Barbara Walters and Joy Behar called him on several falsehoods, including his endlessly repeated fantasy that Palin opposed earmarks for Alaska. Behar used the word ‘lies’ to his face.’

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