How a conspiracy-theory catchword got its legs.For those of us who don't believe the moon landing was faked or Area 51 in Nevada is hiding the first wave of the Cylon attack, the outlandish claims of conspiracy buffs have long been a source of amusement. Unless your own tin-foil hat is particularly effective at blocking out the more eccentric members of society, you already know about “truther”—a term for folks who reject the standard explanation for the events of 9/11 in favor of a thin web of speculation that includes the U.S. government colluding in the extravagant murder of thousands of its own citizens. In The New York Times, Leslie Savan found evidence that “truther” was coined by someone in the 9/11 truth movement in 2004, but the term is mostly applied by non-truthers who think those folks are off their rails.
Trutherism may never be more than a joke, but that joke has been extraordinarily successful—so successful that “truther” has spawned several other names for similarly outrageous movements, catching on as a word for any kind of conspiracy-lover or true believer, giving great relief to worn-out terms such as “conspiracy nut” and “kook.”
“Birther” is probably the most famous offspring of “truther,” and a perfect word for people who believe—against all evidence and reason—that President Obama was not born in the United States, making his Presidency a fraud. “Birther” naturally led to “deather,” a word for people who believe in the death panels, those Sarah Palin-concocted cabals of Obamacare that are just dying to throw grandma from the train. Similar insults include “tenthers” (extreme proponents of the tenth amendment), “oathers” (former military and police officers/extremists who prefer to be called Oath Keepers), and the notorious “teabaggers” (no explanation necessary).
I’m not sure when the “er” suffix first caught on—or why words that end in “th” have been so "er"-worthy—but Leslie Savan thinks the trend may go back to “grassy-knoller” and “mooner,” as JFK and no-moon-landing cranks are called, respectively. Here, Savan, sums it up: “Call it a vast linguistic conspiracy: proponents of the major conspiracy theories of the day—the truthers, the birthers, the deathers—share a suffix that makes them all sound like whackdoodles.”
New words aside, “truther” itself has broadened to cover all sorts of conspiracy-huggers. Sometimes it is used as a general term for a conspiracy enthusiast, as here: “It turns out there’s a whole conspiracist-truther theory running around out there that the U.S. DARPA project ‘HAARP,’ which operates from a site in Alaska, is a major cause of earthquake—and that it, or a related but super-whammadine-secret project, is actually a seismic weapon that Washington likes to turn on against recalcitrant nations, friend and foe alike.” (J.E. Dyer, Hot Air)
Other times, a specific species of truther is identified on the model of “9/11 truther.” On Slate, Jack Shafer recently referred to “Lost truthers” who seem a little too convinced of their theory of the island’s mysteries, while zealot-like supporters of a former Seton Hall basketball coach have been labeled the “Bobby Gonzalez truthers.” ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons likes to poke fun at “Raptor truthers” who feel the Toronto NBA team is constantly shafted and overlooked. Days ago, Ann Althouse wondered if Rush Limbaugh is an “oil-spill truther.” Then there are the “Trig truthers.” If you’re thinking, “Aha, I knew trigonometry was a horrible conspiracy!”—think again. A blog post by Robert Stacy McCain explains “The sad case of ‘Trig Truthers’—the wacko conspiracy theorists who insist that Gov. Sarah Palin did not give birth to her fifth son, Trig.”
The broadening of “truther” is still in-flux and newish, but it’s a well-worn path followed by many other words. “Enthusiasm” referred to a God-possessed frenzy before it came to mean a general sense of excitement. “Lousy” meant “lice-y” before it grew to mean crappy. The first volunteers were specifically military, well before volunteers turned up in animal shelters and soup kitchens. More recently, “blog” morphed from meaning a whole website to a single post. Language doesn’t change as quickly or catastrophically as the weather, but its evolution is equally unpredictable and unstoppable.
FYI: that evolution is not controlled by the government, banks, or Martian warlords—as far as I know.