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The truth about truism

Q: Vivian Gornick wrote this in the NY Times Book Review: “It is a truism that every great book survives the literary and cultural conventions of its time and place because the emotional intelligence in it speaks to a reader a hundred years down the road.” My dictionary says a truism is something too obvious to mention, but I found Gornick’s statement very much worth mentioning. Your thoughts?

A: We agree with you that Vivian Gornick’s comment in the Feb. 14, 2016, issue of the Times Book Review was well worth making. We’ll go further and say that it was indispensable to her essay—complete with the word “truism.”

On a literal level, a “truism” is an obvious or self-evident truth, and many standard dictionaries give that definition first. But they usually add that it “especially” means a statement so obvious as to be  unimportant.  Some other dictionaries, in fact, give that as the only definition, but we think that’s too narrow a view.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A self-evident truth, esp. one of minor importance; a statement so obviously true as not to require or deserve discussion. Also: a proposition that states nothing beyond what is implied in any of its terms.”

We think that in her “Critic’s Take” column, Gornick used “truism” in the sense of a statement that’s self-evident: A book survives the limits of its own time because it has meaning to a later time.

Such a statement is certainly obvious, but it has a special significance in Gornick’s essay, which takes a fresh look at the novel Howards End in light of what we now know of E. M. Forster.

We know that when his novel appeared in 1910, Forster, then  31, “was a closeted homosexual and a virgin who knew nothing of how erotic relations worked—with any combination of partners,” Gornick writes. His time and place “terrorized him into picking up a pen forever dipped in code.”

“It was this sense of frozen solitariness, I now realized, that had colored all of Forster’s thought and feeling, and in time supplied him his signature concern: ‘Only connect!’ Rereading Howards End, it was now easy to see that it is the writer’s own arrested development that haunts Forster’s work, and that makes it moving.”

So a truism that’s obvious may help us understand a truth that isn’t so obvious.

But let’s get back to “truism” and its origins. As the OED explains, the word was “formed within English, by derivation” from the adjective “true,” which is Germanic in origin.

The earliest written use recorded in Oxford is dated 1714: “I abhor Tyranny … and upon this Subject could vent as many Truisms as Mr. St— —le  hath done upon Liberty.” (From an anonymous political pamphlet, “Hannibal Not at Our Gates.”)

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “It is a television truism that, when we wish to celebrate a national event, we loyally turn to the BBC.” (From the British magazine Private Eye, 2012.)

Separately, Oxford lists another use of “truism”: as a mass noun (rather than a specific example).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from sometime before 1770: “Nonsense, truism, falsehood, and absurdity, are so curiously blended in every part of the pamphlet.” (From an essay on ruptures and trusses by Timothy Sheldrake.)

And here’s a modern example: “Rather than playing down the melodrama … it heightens it, with words that hover dangerously close to truism.” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 2009.)

We’ll conclude with the definition of “truism” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “An undoubted or self-evident truth; especially: one too obvious or unimportant for mention.”

Especially, but not always. Even truths that are self-evident are sometimes worth stating.

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