December 13, 2006

One way to get a word in the dictionary

truthywebster.jpg On his Comedy Central show last night (video here), Stephen Colbert triumphantly announced that "truthiness" has been selected by Merriam-Webster as their 2006 Word of the Year. The very same "wordanistas" he derided when he introduced "truthiness" on the first "Colbert Report" in October 2005 were now honoring his contribution to the lexicon. Colbert conveniently neglected to mention that the selection was made not by Merriam-Webster lexicographers but rather online voters visiting (clearly including many legions of Colbert fanatics). So he took the WOTY distinction to mean that the wordanistas had changed their tune, finally recognizing "truthiness" as a real word. That allowed him to register mock outrage when he discovered that "truthiness" is not actually in the latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. "Apparently the definazis over at Webster's don't know the meaning of the word 'word,'" Colbert bellowed. But he offered his own guerrilla tactic for rectifying this oversight.

Colbert directed his loyal fans to go to and download an image of page 1344 of the Collegiate Dictionary revised to make room for "truthiness." (Something had to go: the entry for "try" was removed from the page. "Sorry, 'try,' maybe you should have tried a little harder," Colbert taunted.) Then he instructed viewers how to paste the "corrected" page into their copies of the dictionary, adding, "Now your reference collection accurately reflects my impact on the American language."

I don't know if those Merriam-Webster definazis really will be including "truthiness" in future online and print versions of the Collegiate Dictionary, but I think they'll have to insert an entry of some sort since it was their bright idea to open this year's WOTY selection to online voters. Such is the price of democratic lexicography. But of course, as was noted here on Language Log back in Oct. 2005 (and further discussed in Jan. 2006), "truthiness" has been in the Oxford English Dictionary for quite some time now — the original fascicle with that entry was published around 1915. And predating the OED by a few decades, the Century Dictionary published an entry for "truthiness" around 1890:

Of course, neither the Century nor the OED has the Colbert-esque sense of "truth from the gut" unfettered by facts. We'll have to leave that to 21st-century wordanistas to record for posterity.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 13, 2006 01:34 PM