Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.
The concept of truthiness has emerged as a major subject of discussion surrounding U.S. politics during the late 20th and early 21st centuries because of the perception among some observers of a rise in propaganda and a growing hostility toward factual reporting and fact-based discussion.
American television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness in this meaning as the subject of a segment called "The Wørd" during the pilot episode of his political satire program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. 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 U.S. 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 Dog Latin version of the term, "Veritasiness". For example, in Colbert's "Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando" the word "Veritasiness" can be seen on the banner above the eagle on the operation's seal.
Truthiness was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster. Linguist and OED consultant Benjamin Zimmer pointed out that the word truthiness already had a history in literature and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as a derivation of truthy, and The Century Dictionary, both of which indicate it as rare or dialectal, and to be defined more straightforwardly as "truthfulness, faithfulness". Responding to claims by Michael Adams that the word already existed with a different meaning, Colbert presumably exploiting his definition of the word said: "Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister".
Use by Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert, portraying his character Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, chose the word truthiness just moments before taping the premiere episode of The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005, after deciding 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 [George W. Bush] 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 on December 8, 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.
On his April 2, 2009 episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert added an addendum to the definition: a word so straight it drives men wild.
Coverage by news media
After Colbert's introduction of truthiness, it quickly became widely used and recognized. Six days after, CNN's Reliable Sources featured a discussion of The Colbert Report by host Howard Kurtz, who played a clip of Colbert's definition. On the same day, ABC's Nightline also reported on truthiness, prompting Colbert to respond by saying: "You know what was missing from that piece? Me. Stephen Colbert. But I'm not surprised. Nightline's on opposite me ..."
Within a few months of its introduction by Colbert, truthiness was discussed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Associated Press, Editor & Publisher, Salon, The Huffington Post, Chicago Reader, CNET, and on ABC's Nightline, CBS's 60 Minutes, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The New York Times coverage and usage
In its issue of October 25, 2005, eight days after the premiere episode of the Report, The New York Times ran its third article on The Colbert Report, "Bringing Out the Absurdity of the News". The article specifically discussed the segment on "truthiness", although the Times misreported the word as "trustiness". In its November 1, 2005 issue, the Times ran a correction. On the next episode of the Report, Colbert took the Times to task for the error, pointing out, ironically, that "trustiness" is "not even a word".
The New York Times again discussed "truthiness" in its issue of December 25, 2005, this time as one of nine words that had captured the year's zeitgeist, in an article titled "2005: In a Word; Truthiness" by Jacques Steinberg. In crediting truthiness, Steinberg said, "the pundit who probably drew the most attention in 2005 was only playing one on TV: Stephen Colbert".
In the January 22, 2006 issue, columnist Frank Rich used the term seven times, with credit to Colbert, in a column titled "Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito", to discuss Republican portrayals of several issues (including the Samuel Alito nomination, the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, and Jack Murtha's Vietnam War record). Rich emphasized the extent to which the word had quickly become a cultural fixture, writing, "The mock Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert's slinging of the word 'truthiness' caught on instantaneously last year precisely because we live in the age of truthiness." Editor & Publisher reported on Rich's use of "truthiness" in his column, saying he "tackled the growing trend to 'truthiness,' as opposed to truth, in the U.S."
The New York Times published two letters on the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, where Stephen Colbert was the featured guest, in its May 3, 2006 edition, under the headline "Truthiness and Power".
Frank Rich referenced truthiness again 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."
Usage of "truthiness" continued to proliferate in media, politics, and public consciousness. On January 5, 2006, etymology professor Anatoly Liberman began an hour-long program on public radio by discussing truthiness and predicting it would be included in dictionaries in the next year or two. His prediction seemed to be on track when, the next day, the American Dialect Society announced that "truthiness" was its 2005 Word of the Year, and the website of the Macmillan English Dictionary featured truthiness as its Word of the Week a few weeks later. Truthiness was also selected by The New York Times as one of nine words that captured the spirit of 2005. Global Language Monitor, which tracks trends in languages, named truthiness the top television buzzword of 2006, and another term Colbert coined with reference to truthiness, wikiality, as another of the top ten television buzzwords of 2006, the first time two words from the same show have made the list.
The word was listed in the annual "Banished Word List" released by a committee at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 2007. The list included "truthiness" among other overused terms, such as "awesome" celebrity couple portmanteaus such as "Brangelina", and "pwn". In response, on January 8, 2007, Colbert said Lake Superior State University was an "attention-seeking second-tier state university". The 2008 List of Banished Words restored "truthiness" to formal usage, in response to the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike.
American Dialect Society's Word of the Year
In its 16th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted truthiness as the word of the year. First heard on The Colbert Report, a satirical mock news show on the Comedy Central television channel, truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Stephen Colbert put it, "I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart."
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year
On December 10, 2006, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that "truthiness" was selected as its 2006 Word of the Year on Merriam-Webster's Words of the Year, based on a reader poll, by a 5–1 margin over the second-place word google. "We're at a point where what constitutes truth is a question on a lot of people's minds, and truth has become up for grabs", said Merriam-Webster president John Morse. "'Truthiness' is a playful way for us to think about a very important issue." However, despite winning Word of the Year, the word does not appear in the 2006 edition of the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary. In response to this omission, during "The Wørd" segment on December 12, 2006, Colbert issued a new page 1344 for the tenth edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary that featured "truthiness". To make room for the definition of "truthiness", including a portrait of Colbert, the definition for the word "try" was removed with Colbert stating "Sorry, try. Maybe you should have tried harder." He also sarcastically told viewers to "not" download the new page and "not" glue it in the new dictionary in libraries and schools.
The New York Times crossword puzzle
In the June 14, 2008 edition of The New York Times, the word was featured as 1-across in the crossword puzzle. Colbert mentioned this during the last segment on the June 18 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and declared himself the "King of the Crossword".
BBC "portrait of the decade"
In December 2009, the BBC online magazine asked its readers to nominate suggestions of things to be included on a poster which would represent important events in the 2000s (decade), divided into five different categories: "People", "Words", "News", "Objects" and "Culture". Suggestions were sent in and a panel of five independent experts shortened each category to what they saw as the 20 most important. Among the nominations selected in the "Words" category was "Truthiness". As a result, the word "Truthiness" appeared in the poster.
In 2012, a study examining truthiness was carried out by PhD student Eryn Newman of Victoria University of Wellington. The experiments showed that people are more likely to believe a claim is true regardless of evidence when a decorative photograph appears alongside it.
Also in 2012, Harvard University's Berkman Center hosted a two-day symposium at Harvard and MIT, "Truthiness in Digital Media", exploring "concerns about misinformation and disinformation" in new media.
The Truthiness Collaborative is a project at USC's Annenberg School "to advance research and engagement around the misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and other challenges to discourse fueled by our evolving media and technology ecosystem".
Use in political and social commentary
Kitty Genovese case retrospective
As noted by Jesse Singal in an April 5, 2016 piece "How the False Story of Kitty Genovese’s Murder Went Viral" in New York magazine upon the death of Kitty Genovese's murderer, the entire escalation of a myth surrounding the murder, alleging that 38 people had been silent witnesses allowing a vicious death to proceed in front of them, was attributable to the myth's appeal to "truthiness" (grounded in fear – of insecurity and lack of community spirit) over full investigation into actual truth:
"Today, of course, there is exponentially more news coverage than there was in 1964 – not to mention exponentially more attempts to slot attention-getting events into simple, truthy stories about human nature. The gap between the famous version of the Genovese story and the true one, then, is worth remembering, if only as a check on our natural tendency to hear a story and then nod along and say, 'Of course that’s what happened!'”
James Frey controversy
The Chicago Tribune published an editorial in its January 16, 2006 issue titled "The Truthiness Hurts", crediting the rise of truthiness as serendipitously providing an apt description of the Oprah Book Club controversy over James Frey's fictionalized "memoir", A Million Little Pieces. Truthiness was also used to describe the controversy over the factual accuracy of Frey's book by USA Today in its January 15, 2006 issue, by several other publications including The New York Times, and by the television news program Nightline on its October 23 and January 26 editions.
Oprah Winfrey also discussed truthiness with Frank Rich on her show, in reference to the Frey controversy and the column "Truthiness 101" Rich had recently published in The New York Times. They also mentioned Colbert's role in making the word "truthiness".
On January 27, MSNBC ran a commentary titled "Oprah strikes a blow for truthiness: Do facts really matter? Ask Winfrey, James Frey or Stephen Colbert", making the case that Winfrey's about-face on Frey's book was a "small (and belated) but bold nudge back out of the proud halls of truthiness", but also opportunistic and too little too late.
In the Canadian Parliament
In 2006, Liberal Party of Canada leadership contender Ken Dryden used truthiness as an extensive theme in a speech in the House of Commons. The speech dealt critically with the Harper government's Universal Child Care Plan. Dryden defined truthiness as "something that is spoken as if true that one wants others to believe is true, that said often enough with enough voices orchestrated in behind it, might even sound true, but is not true."
The transcript of all debates in the House (Hansard) is made available in both official languages; the translators into French chose to render "truthiness" as fausse vérité ("false truth").
Alleged snubbing by the Associated Press and Colbert's response
The Associated Press reported on the American Dialect Society's selection of truthiness as the Word of the Year, including the following comments by one of the voting linguists:
Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said "truthiness" means "truthy, not facty". "The national argument right now is, one, 'Who's got the truth?' and, two, 'Who's got the facts?'" he said. "Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we're not going to make much progress."
On each of the first four episodes of the Report after the selection of truthiness as Word of the Year, Colbert lamented that news reports neglected to acknowledge him as the source of the word. On the first of these episodes, he added Michael Adams to his "On Notice" board, and Associated Press reporter Heather Clark, the author of the article, to his "Dead to Me" board:
"You see, the Associated Press article announcing this prestigious award, written by one Heather Clark, had a glaring omission: me," Colbert said during his show Monday. "I'm not mentioned, despite the fact that truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister."
Later Adams admitted the "absolutely hilarious" nature of the show and said he couldn't "think of any greater honor than to be placed on Colbert's 'On Notice' board," and that he "owes Colbert thanks."
On the third of these episodes, he ranked the AP at the top of the "Threat-Down", one of few entries ever to gain the number one spot in place of bears. On the following episode he called Adams and asked for an apology. Though Adams never apologized, Colbert "accepted" his "apology", but failed to take him "off notice".
Associated Press response to Colbert
On January 13, the first day after the four-day run of criticism of the AP on the Report, the AP ran a story about The Colbert Report being upset about being snubbed by the AP, in an article titled "Colbert: AP the biggest threat to America". As he has in the past, Colbert remained in character in an interview for the story, and used it to further the political satire of truthiness; excerpts of the story are:
"When an AP story about the designation sent coast to coast failed to mention Colbert, he began a tongue-in-cheek crusade, not unlike the kind his muse Bill O'Reilly might lead in all seriousness."
"'It's a sin of omission ...' Stephen Colbert told the AP on Thursday ...' It's like Shakespeare still being alive and not asking him what Hamlet is about,' he said."
"The Oxford English Dictionary has a definition for 'truthy' dating back to the 1800s ...' The fact that they looked it up in a book just shows they don't get the idea of truthiness at all,' Stephen Colbert said Thursday. 'You don't look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut.'"
"Though slight, the difference of Colbert's definition and the OED's is essential. It's not your typical truth, but, as The New York Times wrote, 'a summation of what [Colbert] sees as the guiding ethos of the loudest commentators on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.'"
"Colbert, who referred on his program to the AP omission as a 'journalistic travesty,' said Thursday it was similar to the much-criticized weapons of mass destruction reporting leading up to the Iraq War. 'Except,' he said, 'people got hurt this time.'"
On January 14, Clark herself responded in an article titled "Exclusive 'News' – I'm dead to Stephen Colbert". She furthered the rise of "truthiness" in published English in conceding, "Truthiness be told, I never had seen The Colbert Report until my name graced its 'Dead to Me' board this week ... But I will say that I watched Colbert's show for the first time ... It was funny. And that's not just truthy. That's a fact."
On January 31, 2006, Arianna Huffington used truthiness in The Huffington Post. Huffington later appeared as a guest on the March 1, 2006, episode of The Colbert Report. She challenged Colbert on his claim that he had invented the word truthiness. During the interview, Colbert declared, "I'm not a truthiness fanatic; I'm truthiness' father." Huffington corrected him, citing Wikipedia, that he had merely "popularized" the term. Regarding her source, Colbert responded: "Fuck them!"
President George W. Bush
At the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, Colbert, the featured guest, described President Bush's thought processes using the definition of truthiness. Editor and Publisher used "truthiness" to describe Colbert's criticism of Bush, in an article published the same day titled "Colbert Lampoons Bush at White House Correspondents Dinner – President Not Amused?" E&P reported that the "blistering comedy 'tribute' to President Bush ... left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close" and that many people at the dinner "looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting – or too much speaking 'truthiness' to power". E&P reported a few days later that its coverage of Colbert at the dinner drew "possibly its highest one-day traffic total ever", and published a letter to the editor asserting that "Colbert brought truth wrapped in truthiness". On the same weekend, The Washington Post and others also reported on the event. Six months later, in a column titled "Throw The Truthiness Bums Out", The New York Times columnist Frank Rich called Colbert's after-dinner speech a "cultural primary" and christened it the "defining moment" of the United States' 2006 midterm elections.
What we see here is conditional truthiness. When the administration needs to say, oh, we knew how bad it was, it says it, and when it needs to say we had no idea how bad it was, it says it. It depends when it needs it; it'll invent a new truth.
Cato Institute amicus brief
In 2014, the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court co-authored by humorist P. J. O'Rourke in the Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus free speech case. The brief included an extended discussion of the role of truthiness in American political discourse:
In modern times, "truthiness"—a "truth" asserted "from the gut" or because it "feels right," without regard to evidence or logic—is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it. After all, where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we'd be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn't administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Colbert refreshed "truthiness" in an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on July 18, 2016, using the neologism "Trumpiness" regarding statements made by Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. According to Colbert, while truthiness refers to statements that feel true but are actually false, "Trumpiness" does not even have to feel true, much less be true. As evidence that Trump's remarks exhibit this quality, he cited a Washington Post column stating that many Trump supporters did not believe his "wildest promises" but supported him anyway.
- Alternative facts
- Big lie – Gross distortion of the truth
- Cognitive dissonance
- Fake news
- De facto
- Noble lie
- On Bullshit – an essay by Harry Frankfurt, originally written in 1986 but published as a book on January 10, 2005, nine months before Colbert coined truthiness
- Post-truth politics
- Selective exposure theory
- Wikiality – another word coined by Colbert
- Processing fluency – a statement is more likely to be considered true if it is easier to process.
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