January 16, 2006

The birth of truthiness?

Last week's great truthiness debate is still raging in some corners, despite the fact that both the American Dialect Society and Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" have probably milked about as much publicity out of the spurious squabble as can be expected. At the heart of the debate is the question of what sort of ownership Stephen Colbert (or rather the truculent on-air persona known as "Stephen Colbert") has over truthiness, the word first popularized on his show and later selected as ADS Word of the Year. Colbert was appalled when the initial Associated Press story on the Word of the Year selection didn't even mention him, instead turning to an ADS member, Michael Adams, for a quick gloss. (The AP's shoddy reporting has led, bizarrely, to Colbert calling the AP the "No. 1 threat facing America"... in an article by the AP.)

Though Colbert vehemently declared that he "pulled that word right out of where the sun don't shine," Adams defended his right to define the word by pointing out (both to Colbert himself and to the AP in its followup article) that truthiness can already be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Colbert's rejoinder — "you don't look up truthiness in a book, you look it up in your gut" — is unassailably truthy. Nonetheless, we would be failing in our mission as wordanistas if we didn't try digging a little deeper into the roots of truthiness.

Since the OED's lone 1824 citation for truthiness was first noted right here back in October, it's incumbent on us to investigate the source of this earliest known usage. The citation is taken from a book that was actually published in 1854 by Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, entitled Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney, with selections from his journal and correspondence. Gurney (1788-1847) was an English banker who gained renown as a charismatic Quaker minister, traveling to the United States and other countries to preach on behalf of world peace, the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, and abstinence from alcohol. Braithwaite was a disciple of Gurney's evangelism, and he sought to spread his mentor's teachings by presenting Gurney's collected writings posthumously.

Fortunately, both volumes of the memoirs are publicly available from the University of Michigan's Making of America digital library. And it turns out Gurney used truthiness at least twice in his writings. (I haven't found any other pre-Colbert uses of the word in printed materials, though the Usenet archive finds a number of mostly tongue-in-cheek examples in online newsgroups over the past decade.)

The first of Gurney's uses, the one that made it into the OED, describes Amelia Opie (1769-1853), a family friend who, through Gurney's influence, decided to become a Quaker herself:

The chronology here is a bit confusing. The date at the top of the page is 1824, which is what the OED used for its citation. But Gurney is describing the difficulties Opie encountered "when she found herself constrained to make an open profession of Quakerism," which didn't happen until 1825. The chapter where the passage appears actually begins with letters to Opie in 1824, but then Braithwaite injects other material that Gurney wrote about her and her decision to become a Quaker. This particular passage is from "his notice of his long valued friend," which on an earlier page Braithwaite explains is from Gurney's autobiography, a manuscript written in 1837 while he was on a voyage to America. So it looks like the OED got the dating wrong — truthiness is actually 13 years younger than we thought. (Maybe Colbert was right about not trusting reference books!)

Regardless of the exact date of the usage, it's immediately striking to the reader due to its italicization in the text, which suggests that Gurney was emphasizing the unusualness of the word, perhaps in recognition of its nonce status. I don't find any uses of truthy (or other derived forms) elsewhere in the text, so I doubt that this was a term in common use by the Quakers of the era. But certainly the word truth had a particular resonance for Gurney and his fellow Quakers. To this day, Quakers often call themselves "Friends of the Truth" and place great importance on truthful testimony. So for Gurney to trumpet Opie's "truthiness" must have been an innovative form of praise for a recent convert to Quakerism.

The second example of truthiness that I found in Gurney's writings, from a journal entry written in 1844, relates not to a personal quality but to the Scriptures themselves:

Again, the italicization of the word highlights its peculiarity. But here the usage seems positively (dare I say it?) Colbert-esque. Late in life, Gurney learned to take delight in the odd little contradictions found in the Scriptures. But these contradictions only reinforced his faith in the truth, or rather the truthiness, of the biblical text. Without those minor inconsistencies, the Scriptures would lack "genuineness and authenticity." So clearly Gurney was reaching for a concept beyond mundane truth. The Bible is no mere reference book, after all. As I'm sure Mr. Colbert would remind us, no one ever accused the Good Book of being "all fact, no heart."

[Update: Jesse Sheidlower of the OED points out that that the Century Dictionary has an entry for truthiness (marked "rare") with an 1832 citation from Noctes Ambrosianæ:

So assuming this citation holds up to scrutiny, it predates Gurney's (correctly dated) first use by five years.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 16, 2006 11:57 AM