What does comedian Stephen Colbert have in common with a nineteenth-century English female writer, nineteenth-century Scottish pundit, and a turn-of-the-twentieth-century translator of Basque? In a word, truthiness.
In today’s usage, truthiness is inextricably linked with Colbert, who used the word on the premiere episode of his television show The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. Truthiness, as used by Colbert, is the truth as we wish it to be, what we know in our gut as opposed to what we know in our brain. In the show, Colbert parodies television pundits who invent facts to support their opinions and ignore evidence that doesn’t. In the very segment in which he introduced the word, Colbert went on to give an example of how truthiness works:
Now I’m sure some of the word police, the wordinistas over at Webster’s are gonna say, “hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.
Like the show on which it appeared, the word became a big hit. Most uses of truthiness have been in discussion of Colbert’s show, but there have been enough uses outside the context of the program to consider this sense of truthiness to be something more than a mere stunt word. The American Dialect Society named truthiness as the Word of the Year for 2005, as did Merriam-Webster for 2006.
Colbert, while clearly the source for the current definition and popularity of the word, is not the first to ever use truthiness. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of the word from the 1824 Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney, who used the word to refer to writer Amelia Opie:
Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness, and appreciates her kindness. [emphasis original]
But the dictionary defines this use of truthiness as truthfulness, faithfulness, not at all the same thing as Colbert’s usage.
The word is also used in John Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae #60, originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine in February 1832, one of a long series of imaginary dialogues between a set of characters, both imaginary and based on real people, conducted in Ambrose’s Tavern in Edinburgh:
I do not deny that you may possess very considerable natural powers of veracity—of truth-telling; but then, you have not cultivated them, having been too much occupied with the ordinary affairs of life. Truthiness is a habit, like every other virtue.
The word has undoubtedly been independently coined several times over the decades and centuries, but finding actual uses in print is a rare occurrence. The only other instance I can find is in a letter to the editor of, what appears to be, the 8 October 1915 Oxford Times from E. S. Dodgson, a translator of Basque works. The letter has been pasted into the back flyleaf of the copy of William Walker’s 1730 book Some Improvement to the Art of Teaching that was scanned by Google Books. (This particular volume has numerous clippings of Dodgson’s letters to newspapers pasted into the flyleaves. Finding oddities like this, whether it be on Google Books or in a physical library copy, is one of the joys of poring through old books.) Dodgson writes:
My work was made as pithy and truthy as possible, and truthiness will compel me to add to it very soon a leaf of corrigenda.
So while truthiness, meaning the quality of being truthful, has been in occasional use of the last couple of centuries, Stephen Colbert can lay fair claim to coining the twenty-first century sense of the word.
“truthy, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Wilson, John, Noctes Ambrosianae, vol. 5 (February 1832–February 1835), New York: W. J. Middleton, 1863.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton