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The true truth

Q: After recent unrest in Memphis, the city’s police director said he suspected that there were “some individuals who try to agitate a situation, and it’s unfortunate because it hinders the true truth coming out.” Is “true truth” a new concept in the era of “fake news”?

A: No, “true truth” is not a product of our times. It dates back to Renaissance England and is one in a long line of phrases implying that sometimes the truth is relative.

Other phrases include “plain truth,” “naked truth,” “whole truth,” “absolute truth,” “unadorned truth,” “unvarnished truth,” and “cold truth.” Nobody is much bothered by these expressions.

But “true truth” seems to cross a line, since the noun phrase is virtually self-modifying. After all, the truth by definition is true.

Redundant or not, the phrase “true truth” has been around since the 16th century, if not earlier. This is the oldest example we’ve found, from a poem believed to have been published around 1555:

“Nor stay is there none as the true truth sayth” (from The Tryumphe of Tyme, a translation by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, from Petrarch’s Italian).

We also found this example in a poem published in 1602: “With that true truth, his arrand [message] I had sed [spoken]” (from Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Muridella, by William Basse).

This 1611 use is a better illustration of the phrase’s meaning: Among the “gifts that gracious Heav’ns bestowe,” the poet says, is the ability “to discern true Truth from Sophistrie” (from Josuah Sylvester’s translation of a work by Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas).

We’ve also found the expression in religious tracts and philosophical treatises—not only in English but in French (la vraie vérité) and German (die wahre Wahrheit).

The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, writing around 1800, criticizes those who say to themselves, “we who speak have undoubtedly the true truth inborn in us, and, hence, the man who contradicts us must necessarily be in the wrong.” (From A. E. Kroeger’s English translation of “Fichte’s Criticism of Schelling,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, July 1878.)

“True truth” also crops up in journalism and in fiction. In “White Lies,” an anonymous opinion piece that ran in the weekly journal Truth (London, Sept. 1, 1881), the phrase appears 11 times.

Here are a few examples: “true truth is of all things the most impracticable” … “to say the true truth would be cruel” … “the true truth would sound too harsh.”

And in a romantic novel, Greifenstein (1890) by F. Marion Crawford, a character says: “But you have gone too far—you have lost sight of the true truth in pursuing a truth that was true yesterday.”

As far as we can tell, the only dictionary in which the phrase appears is Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (1905 edition). Wright defines “the true truth” as “the plain, unvarnished truth.” He gives this example from James Prior’s novel Forest Folk (1901), in which a character speaks in a north Yorkshire dialect: “If we don’t speak the trew trewth this time, we are liars, sich un’s as yer don’t often see.”

Getting back to some of those other “truth” phrases we mentioned above, a couple date back to the 15th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest known written uses of “plain truth” (circa 1425) and “naked truth” (1436). And in searches of historical databases, we’ve found early examples of “whole truth” (1549); “absolute truth” (1567); “unadorned truth” (1782); “unvarnished truth” (1820); and “cold truth” (1836).

Perhaps the most famous of such phrases is one from the 16th century: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The OED defines this expression and its variants as meaning “the absolute truth.” Specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “used to emphasize that something, esp. a statement, is or should be true in every particular, with no facts omitted or untrue elements added.”

“The phrase forms part of the oath or the affirmation … declared or agreed to by witnesses in court before giving testimony,” the OED explains. “A witness can choose to place one hand on the Bible when swearing the oath, but is now usually not required to do so.”

The earliest example in the OED is religious rather than judicial: “What shoulde we teache in matters of saluation [salvation] but the Truthe, and all the truthe, and nothyng but the truth?”  (From a sermon preached in 1571 by John Bridges at Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit in London, and published the same year.)

This later 16th-century example refers to the oath taken by a jury foreman: “You shal present and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so helpe you God, and by the contents of this booke.” (From The Order of Keeping a Court Leete, 1593, by Jonas Adams. The “court leet,” which had jurisdiction over petty offenses and civil disputes, dated from medieval times and was held periodically in a local manor or district before a lord or his steward.)

Finally, in this OED citation from the early 17th century the oath is specifically for witnesses: “The oath giuen to Iurors [Jurors] is, That they shall deale iustly and truely betweene partie and partie; but the witnesses are to speake the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so they take their oath.” (From Consuetudo, 1622, a tract on mercantile law by Gerard de Malynes.)

The oath has come down through the centuries largely intact. This OED example is from Martin F. Scheinman’s 1977 book Evidence and Proof in Arbitration (the brackets are in the original): “The oath generally used is: ‘Do you swear [or affirm] to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ ”

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