October 26, 2005

Truthiness or trustiness?

The New York Times has bigger headaches to deal with right now, but they blew the punchline to some linguistic humor that appeared in last week's premiere of "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert's satirical spinoff of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central.

First, here is a transcript of what Colbert actually said on the Oct. 17 show, in his deadpan sendup of the "talking points" that Bill O'Reilly is so fond of spewing at viewers of his Fox News show. (Colbert captures O'Reilly's pseudo-demotic inanities perfectly, complete with sleek but pointless graphic accompaniments.)

And on this show, on this show your voice will be heard... in the form of my voice. 'Cause you're looking at a straight-shooter, America. I tell it like it is. I calls 'em like I sees 'em. I will speak to you in plain simple English.

And that brings us to tonight's word: truthiness.

Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word." Well, anybody who knows me knows that 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. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.

(A video clip of this segment is available here and here.)

Now here is how Colbert's monologue was paraphrased in the Times' Oct. 25 review of the show by Alessandra Stanley:

On his regular feature "The Word," Mr. Colbert routinely mocks the kind of anti-intellectual populism perfected by Fox News. "Trustiness" was his word of the day, he told viewers with a poker face, sneering at the "wordanistas over at Webster's" who might refute its existence. "I don't trust books," he explained. "They're all fact and no heart."

It's easy to see how Stanley accidentally substituted trustiness for truthiness, since it anticipates Colbert's blowhard assertion, "I don't trust books." But it completely ruins the joke, of course, since the "wordanistas over at Webster's" wouldn't have a problem with trustiness — nor would their colleagues at American Heritage, Encarta, et al. Even non-wordanistas would likely recognize trustiness as a rather unremarkable nominalization of the everyday word trusty (though it's certainly not as common as the similar nominalization trustworthiness).

But just in case Stanley didn't kill the humor entirely, let me finish the job by pointing out that truthiness wouldn't necessarily offend the Word Police either, since it actually appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has an entry for truthy, marked "rare or dialectal" and defined as "characterized by truth; truthful, true." The derived form truthiness (meaning "truthfulness, faithfulness") follows, supported by this citation:

1824 J. J. GURNEY in Braithwaite Mem. (1854) I. 242 Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.

While I'm deflating lexicographical jokes, let me tackle the old grade-school gotcha game, "Did you know gullible isn't in the dictionary?" There's a kernel of truth to this, actually. As Donna Richoux noted in a discussion on the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban back in 2002, gullible doesn't appear in Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. (Here is one online transcription of the relevant page.) It turns out that gullible is a relatively recent word — it was still quite new when Webster published his dictionary, as the OED's earliest citation is from 1825. Also, the word was formed by a rather circuitous route, according to the OED's etymological information. It was evidently a back-formation of gullibility (dated to 1793), which in turn was an alteration of cullibility (1728), ultimately from cull (1698), meaning "a dupe". It's a puzzlingly roundabout derivation, considering that gull meaning "to dupe" dates back to c.1550.

That's all from this wordanista.

[Update, 10/27/05: Stanley may have been a victim of her spellchecker. Details here.]

[Update, 11/1/05: The Times has issued a correction.]

[Update, 1/6/06: The American Dialect Society has selected truthiness as Word of the Year.]

[Update, 1/10/06: Colbert gets personal.]

[Update, 1/13/06: More feuding over truthiness.]

[Update, 1/16/06: The OED may have erred in dating its citation to 1824 — it looks like it's actually from 1837.]

[Update, 1/19/06: Is the truthiness train finally grinding to a halt?]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 26, 2005 01:00 AM