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,
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:
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
, 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