Q: I think it’s truthy to say Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness.” How could he coin a word that’s been around since the 19th century?
A: We disagree. Colbert coined a new use for an old word that was never common and had pretty much died out by the time he rediscovered and redefined it.
And like the noun “truthiness,” the little-used adjective “truthy” was similarly rediscovered and redefined in the late 20th century.
When “truthiness” showed up in English in the 19th century, it was a colloquial term for truthfulness, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1832:
“You do not speak the truth well, North. 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.” (From a contribution by the Scottish author John Wilson to Noctes Ambrosianae, a monthly column of imaginary conversations.)
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the original “truthiness” as a noun formed from “truthy,” a colloquial and regional adjective meaning “characterized by truth; truthful, true.” The dictionary labels the truthful senses of the adjective and noun as “now rare.”
The first Oxford example for the adjective is from an opera: “You … are afraid, Theodore, your sweetheart shouldn’t prove truthy.” (Poems; and Theodore, an Opera, a collection of works by the English author John Henry Colls, published in 1804, two years after his death.)
In the early 21st century, according to the OED, the old noun took on a new meaning, chiefly in the US: “The quality of appearing to be true while not actually or necessarily being so; the fact or quality of accepting or presenting something which is not true as the truth.”
The dictionary notes that the new sense was “first used by United States humorist Stephen Colbert” and it cites the Oct. 17, 2005, premiere of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central: “The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” (We added the italics.)
On Jan. 6, 2006, the American Dialect Society named “truthiness” as its “word of the year” for 2005, saying it “refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”
The adjective “truthy” showed up the next day in an Associated Press article about the ADS decision: “Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said ‘truthiness’ means ‘truthy, not facty.’ ”
We’ll end with an expanded version of the remarks by Colbert’s on-air persona:
You’re looking at a straight shooter, America. I tell it like it is, I calls ’em like I sees ’em. I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight’s word: truthiness.
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 wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.
And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Cuz face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. …
The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.