Mark Peters on the Colbert Suffix
Mark Peters on the Colbert suffix.
In his fantastic book On Bullshit, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt says a bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."Maybe that has something to do with why Stephen Colbert's bullshit synonym "truthiness" has hit the linguistic spot like few words in recent years: It names the degraded condition of truth in media, government, nonfiction, and elsewhere. "Truthiness" has been so successful that it's begun fathering children-"fameiness," "referenciness," and others-that demonstrate the Colbert suffix, a timely new meaning of an old word ending that allows writers to spoof and skewer our regular diet of drivel and twaddle.But before a suffix could be named after him, Colbert had to coin "truthiness," which debuted during a segment called "The Word" on the very first episode of The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. Colbert's Bill-O'Reilly-esque, attack-poodle character introduced "truthiness" and became preemptively indignant over the word's reception, in a now semi-famous speech: "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 that 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 want to say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart." Colbert finished by saying, "The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."Despite his disparagement of wordinistas, "truthiness" might never have caught on if the American Dialect Society's linguists, lexicographers, and other wordmongers hadn't voted it 2005's Word of the Year. (I was part of the meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where it happened, and made a few pro-"truthiness" comments that-I swear by Odin's raven-inspired some head-nodding and swayed some voters, so I'll take a nickel's worth of huzzahs for the word's success.) Much more credit is due to Steve Kleinedler, the senior editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, who nominated "truthiness," along with the less gripping Colbert coinage, "grippy." The final vote was between "truthiness" and "Katrina"-two words proposing opposite views of what a word of the year should be. Since 2005 was the year of the Katrina disaster, that name was depressingly prominent, while only a rabid Colbert-head would have heard of "truthiness," which was embraced for its mega-relevance, not its mini-success.When "truthiness"was announced the winner, at least one disgruntled wordman stormed out of the room in a cloud of peevishness, presumably annoyed by the fuzzy meaning of this Colbertism. Truthfully, the meaning of "truthiness" is a bit up for grabs, perhaps appropriately so-it was defined by the ADS as "what one wishes to be the truth regardless of the facts" and by member Michael Adams as "truthy, not facty." Colbert himself, meanwhile, has admonished, "You don't look up ‘truthiness' in a book, you look it up in your gut." Hours after the ADS vote, at a restaurant with some fellow wordfolk, our telling of the victory of "truthiness" prompted a classic who-farted-in-church face from the waitstaff. The rest of the world reacted more kindly, as this distinctively 21st-century brand of bullshit moved from pet word of language mavens to a successful word that has appeared in a metric truckload of news stories, replaced "truth" in dozens of clichés (the truthiness hurts, you can't handle the truthiness, etc.), and won Word of the Year twice more in 2006 by users of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and dictionary.com.Though Colbert has said "Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister," he wasn't the first to do so. Under the entry "truthy," the Oxford English Dictionary has an 1824 example of "truthiness" as "truthfulness": "Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness." Likewise, The Century Dictionary's 1832 citation has none of the disparaging quality of Colbert's version: "Truthiness is a habit, like every other virtue."It's Colbert's nonvirtuous sense of the -y suffix-and his new meaning of "truthy" as not truthy at all-that's inspired some recently coined words, demonstrating what the Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky has called the Colbert suffix. The most notable case is probably "fame-iness," a type of devalued, insubstantial fame epitomized by Paris Hilton and discussed by Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times. Zwicky has also found examples of "referenciness" (a quality possessed by writing that appears to contain solid references, but upon closer examination, those sources are actually bogus or beside the point) and "faithy-ness" (an insincere pretense to religious faith, endemic to politicians). Elsewhere, I've spotted "democraciness," "innocentiness," "integritiness," "intelligentiness," "outraginess," "victoriness," and "youthiness," all of which have the Colbert flavor.Bullshitters and truthiness-tellers may not care about the truth, but clearly someone does, or the Colbert suffix wouldn't be catching on. This trend is a handy tool for pointing out the emptiness of abstract nouns-those puffed-up, gassy, focus-group-propelled buzzwords that are so prone to being abused. The spread of "truthiness" and the Colbert suffix are also reminders that language is a mass phenomenon. "Doh" is in the OED too-not because Homer Simpson uses it, but because lots of people do. Dictionaries are books everyone writes, and the wordinistas follow our lead. I'd say we're doing the language a favor if we keep pointing out educationiness, journalisminess, ethicaliness, and other destructive or preposterous farces. By doing so, maybe we'll make actual education, journalism, and ethics easier to locate too.