September 07, 2006

One rather late vote for truthiness

Our friends over at The American Dialect Society recently are engaged in a debate over whether that society's annual proclamation of the Word of the Year is sullying its reputation as a serious academic organization. At its 2006 meeting, members attending that jovial and popular session (and anyone else who wanted to vote) selected "truthiness" as this year's WOTY (yes, that's what they call it), a word extracted from Stephen Colbert's Comedy Central progam. Apparently, culling this WOTY from a fake news comedy show seemed to some ADSers like a shift to academia's darker side. After the WOTY was announced in January, Language Loggers, always alert, leapt into the fray with posts including, but not limited to, these (here), (here), and (here). One of the constitutional mandates of Language Log seems to be to reveal concepts in search of everyday terminology, as is aptly illustrated by Arnold Zwicky's quest to find a good term to describe acronyms that have lost their initial (sorry about that) meanings.

I'm not sure "truthiness" is so bad. For some time now we seem to have had a need for a layperson's word like "truthiness" to describe a form of truth that is, well, true, but not exactly what the listener or reader thought. Peter Tiersma called our attention to such a phenomenon in his 1999 book, Legal Language. After describing how the field of law first converts spoken language into written transcripts, leading judges to interpret the transcript as though it were an authoritative text rather than a mere record of spoken language, Tiersma (p. 178) gives a telling example of "truthiness" (he didn't call it this) in an actual perjury trial, Bronson v. United States:

Samuel Bronston was president of a movie production company that petitioned for bankruptcy. At a hearing, the company's creditors were trying to locate his personal and company bank accounts in various European countries. The transcript contained the following exchange between the lawyer for a creditor and Mr. Bronston:

Q: Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?
A: No, sir.
Q: Have you ever?
A: The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich.

Bronston was telling the truth here. Well, sort of. It turns out that he did have a personal account in a Swiss bank but, whether cleverly or naively, he interpreted the lawyer's "you" to mean his company, not himelf. This pronoun lets us do this if we are so inclined. It seems to be up to the questioner to figure out what the answserer meant. In short, this seems to be a reasonable candidate for truthiness.

But we don't have to go to law trials to find truthiness. After my recent post about the names of window washing companies, Margaret Marks emailed me about a Google Video called "Topless Car Wash." Sorry, I  couldn't get the link to work but you can get it by going to Google Video and typing in Topless Car Wash. Beautiful young women in bikinis, conducting one of those impromptu, street-side car wash businesses, are gyrating and holding up signs to attract male drivers. After a curious man stops, the women tease and promise to be right back. Next they go into a building, supposedly to undress. Out bounce five very fat men,  topless of course, who start washing the car.

Is this an example of "truthiness" or what?

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 7, 2006 02:27 PM