December 08, 2006

Another year of truthiness

Merriam-Webster has announced its Word of the Year, and it's our old friend truthiness. We've been tracking the word's progress ever since Stephen Colbert introduced it on the first episode of his Comedy Central show back in October 2005. The word got a big boost when the American Dialect Society selected it as the Word of the Year for 2005, and now the ADS is looking prescient for having jumped on the truthiness train a year before Merriam-Webster got to it.

Here is Colbert's reaction, as reported by the AP:

"Though I'm no fan of reference books and their fact-based agendas, I am a fan of anyone who chooses to honor me," he said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "And what an honor. Truthiness now joins the lexicographical pantheon with words like 'squash,' 'merry,' 'crumpet,' 'the,' 'xylophone,' 'circuitous,' 'others,' and others."

In past years, Merriam-Webster selected its WOTY by calculating which word got the most look-ups on, but this year it was strictly a popularity contest, with visitors to the site asked to submit votes for their favorite choice. Merriam-Webster reports that truthiness beat out such contenders as google, decider, war, and insurgent, winning by "an overwhelming 5 to 1 majority vote." One suspects some stuffing of the ballot boxes going on here, especially considering that Colbert fans easily scored a win for their hero in an online contest to name a Hungarian bridge, trouncing the early leader Chuck Norris. (The Hungarian government ended up disqualifying Colbert, on the grounds that he's still alive.) As far as I know, Colbert didn't make an on-air appeal to win this contest, as he had with the Hungarian bridge campaign. The Colbert Nation and like-minded crusaders for all that is truthy won this one on their own. And I wouldn't be surprised if truthiness triumphs in a similar WOTY contest over on

As for WOTY selections that are not chosen by the vox populi, the New Oxford American Dictionary decided on carbon neutral, reflecting new efforts by individuals and companies alike to combat global warming by decreasing or offsetting the emission of greenhouse gases. (Full disclosure: I've recently joined the Oxford team and was involved in the selection process.) Meanwhile, Webster's New World College Dictionary went with Crackberry. The American Dialect Society will round out the WOTY season, making its choice at the group's annual meeting in Anaheim on Jan. 5. But last year's winner, all-conquering truthiness, might be a tough act to follow.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 8, 2006 05:17 PM