January 13, 2006

The truthiness wars rage on

It was round two of Colbert vs. Adams Thursday night.

In our last installment, Comedy Central's mock-newsman Stephen Colbert put Michael Adams of North Carolina State University "on notice" for his quote in an AP article about the selection of truthiness as the American Dialect Society's 2005 Word of the Year. Colbert excoriated the Associated Press for its failure to recognize him as the source for the word, and Adams, who provided a Colbert-free definition for the article, ended up being one of the targets of his righteous indignation.

But Adams had the opportunity to fight back on Thursday's "Colbert Report," in a debate via telephone about the ownership rights to truthiness. While Colbert claimed to have invented the word, Adams pointed out that it already appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (first noted here, with the OED's 1824 citation, back in October — though to be totally truthy, the truthiness of 1824 simply meant 'truthfulness').

Transcript follows. [Update: Video from Comedy Central here.]

You know, by now everyone's aware of the conspiracy against me by the Associated Press. The American Dialect Society named truthiness as the Word of the Year. So far, so good.

But then the AP picked up the story and didn't even call me for a definition. They asked one "Dr." (in air quotes) Michael Adams, visiting associated professor at North Carolina State — which I think may be a made-up school. This "professor" told the AP that truthiness means, quote, "truthy, not facty," earning him a place on my "Notice" board.

Anyway, this Adams guy now claims he can explain himself. And since I am nothing if not generous to those I have crushed, I talked to Dr. Adams by phone earlier today. Here's how it went.

(Beginning of taped interview.)


ADAMS: Hello.

COLBERT: Hello, is this Dr. Michael Adams?

ADAMS: Yes it is.

COLBERT: Uh, Dr. Adams, this is Stephen Colbert from "The Colbert Report." Are you familiar with the show?

ADAMS: Ummm, no.

COLBERT: OK, are you the same Dr. Adams who took it upon himself to define truthiness to the Associated Press last week?

ADAMS: Uh, yes I am.

COLBERT: Um, sir, where do you get off defining a word that I made up?

ADAMS: You didn't make it up. It's in the dictionary.

COLBERT: What dictionary?

ADAMS: It's in the Oxford English Dictionary.

COLBERT: OK, stop right there. I pulled that word right out of where the sun don't shine on October 17th.

ADAMS: Umm...

COLBERT: All right, you are aware that you are "on notice" and this phone call's not helping. Do you understand the implications of that?

ADAMS: Um, no, I don't understand the implications.

COLBERT: Well, they're many.

ADAMS: How do I get off notice?

COLBERT: You could apologize.

ADAMS: Apologize for...?

COLBERT: I accept! Thank you! It takes a big man to admit he was wrong.

ADAMS: I didn't apologize.

COLBERT: Too late, I forgive you. Good day!

ADAMS: But...

COLBERT: I said good day, sir!

(End of taped interview.)

You hear that, Associated Press? I am standing by for your formal apology. And that means engraved. Good night, citizens. We'll see you tomorrow.

(Just in case anyone was wondering, that was indeed the voice of Michael Adams, though the nerdish "visual approximation" they used bears no resemblance.)

[Update: Colbert and Adams also face off in a new Associated Press article, this time by entertainment writer Jake Coyle. The OED entry for truthy and its derived form truthiness comes up again, but Colbert counters this lexicographical reproach in expected fashion:

"The fact that they looked it up in a book just shows that they don't get the idea of truthiness at all," Colbert said Thursday. "You don't look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut." ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 13, 2006 01:04 AM