January 10, 2006

Colbert fights for truthiness

On Friday the American Dialect Society chose as its 2005 Word of the Year Stephen Colbert's sublimely silly neologism truthiness. In a post submitted that night from the ADS/LSA meetings in Albuquerque, I surmised that the initial Associated Press coverage of the voting, which didn't even mention Colbert, would "serve as more fodder for Colbert's put-upon persona of perpetual outrage."

Well, "The Colbert Report" returned to Comedy Central from an extended break on Monday night, and sure enough Colbert was in high (faux) dudgeon. At the end of the show he called out not only AP reporter Heather Clark, but also wordanista Michael Adams (author of the excellent Slayer Slang), who happened to be the ADS member that Clark buttonholed for a quick definition of truthiness. Colbert even dug up Adams' academic title and course information at North Carolina State University, in homage to the over-the-top ad hominem attacks perfected by the likes of Bill O'Reilly. At Language Log Plaza, our hearts go out to Adams, the blameless victim of a pseudo-anchor's pseudo-wrath.

A transcript of the segment follows. [Update: A video clip is now available from Comedy Central. It can also be viewed here.]

Before we go, I want to say something about the first "Word" from the first ever broadcast of this show. Jimmy, roll the tape.

(Video from first show: "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.'")

Turns out I underestimated those wordanistas. On Friday the American Dialect Society chose truthiness as the 2005 Word of the Year (applause), beating words like podcast and Katrinagate. We kicked their asses. And I've never been so honored and insulted at the same time.

You see the Associated Press article announcing this prestigious award, written by one Heather Clark, had a glaring omission: me. I'm not mentioned, despite the fact that truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister. Instead of coming to me, here's where Ms. Clark got the definition.

Quote: Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said (subquote) "truthiness" means "truthy, not facty."

First of all, I looked him up. He's not a professor, he's a visiting associate professor. And second, it means a lot more than that, Michael. I don't know what you're getting taught over there in English 201 and 324 over at Tompkins Hall, Wolfpack. But it isn't truthiness.

You know what? Bring out the board, bring out the board. (Stagehand brings out the "On Notice" board, with entries including "Black hole at center of galaxy," "E Street Band," "grizzly bears," "Bob Woodruff," "the Toronto Raptors," "The British Empire," "business casual," and "Barbara Streisand.")

Visiting associate professor Michael Adams: you, sir, are on notice. OK, somebody's gotta go. E Street Band, this is your lucky day. (Colbert pulls out card for "E Street Band," replaces it with "Michael Adams.")

OK, there it is. Deal with it.

But the real culprit here is so-called reporter Heather Clark. This is her sleaziest piece of yellow journalism since "New Mexico Poll Watchers See Smooth Election Day." Now I already tore her a new one for that. Heather Clark, you are dead to me.

Let's bring out the board. (Stagehand brings out "Dead To Me" board, with the entries "CNN en Español," "cast of Friends," "owls," "screw-cap wines," "bowtie pasta," "California's 50th district," "New York intellectuals," and "men with beards.")

Get ready, Heather. Get ready, brace yourself. (Colbert adds card for "Heather Clark" to the board.) How does that feel? Does that sting? Now that you're dead to me, you're gonna wish you were never born.

I'm sorry you had to see that, nation. But in the interest of truthiness, it had to be done. Good night.

[Update #1: Adams has been enshrined on the Wikipedia page for "The Colbert Report," in a section now moved to the rapidly expanding entry for truthiness.]

[Update #2: Adam Green of the Huffington Post suggests that defenders of truthiness should ask Heather Clark to correct the record, even supplying her email address. To be fair, she did file a later wire story that credited Colbert, albeit indirectly. (Yet another iteration of Clark's story gives Colbert direct credit.)]

[Update #3: Steve Kleinedler recommends this column for anyone who is still puzzled by the concept of truthiness.]

[Update #4: Colbert and Adams went mano a mano on the Jan. 12 show.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 10, 2006 12:32 AM