Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Truth Is More of a Stranger Than Fiction*

[[W O R D S]] * Whether as a result of his inattention or because of some medical malady, George W. Bush has introduced a prodigious number of terms into the American vernacular simply by mangling the English language (“misunderestimate,” “suiciders,” “the unalienalienable right of life,” etc.). Some of these “Bushisms” will undoubtedly survive beyond the prez’s turbulent time in the Oval Office, just as Warren G. Harding’s wont to corrupt the perfectly good word “normality” into “normalcy” (as in his 1920 presidential campaign call for a “return to normalcy” after World War I) embedded that mistaken noun in the national argot.

But now the American Dialect Society (ADS) has put its stamp of approval on a word that, while Bush didn’t actually invent it, is clearly associated with his political style: “truthiness.” Popularized by the Comedy Central TV series The Colbert Report, “truthiness” has been chosen by ADS linguists, academics, and editors as the word that best reflects the year 2005. It’s defined as “the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts,” according to USA Today. That newspaper goes on to quote Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University, as saying that “truthiness” means “truthy, not facty.” “The national argument right now is, one, who’s got the truth and, two, who’s got the facts,” Adams says. “Until we can manage to get the two of them back together again, we’re not going make much progress.”

Yet the U.S. Republican administration has done everything it can to muddle the distinctions, since it benefits from their confusion. Thus, we have Dick Cheney continuing to insist--or, alternately, not denying allegations--that Iraq had a hand in the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., even though no proof of complicity, if it exists, has ever been made public. We also have Bush officially accepting the new, post-Abu Ghraib scandal congressional ban on the “use of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against detainees to protect national security,” while simultaneously asserting his right, as commander in chief, to bypass those torture restrictions whenever he chooses. (For more on that, see here and here). And, just this week, we’ve witnessed conservative U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito equivocating when he’s asked by Democratic senators whether he believes that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (which legalized abortion in the United States) is “settled law.” (“If ‘settled’ means it can’t be reexamined, that’s one thing,” Alito remarked. “If ‘settled’ means it is a precedent entitled to respect as stare decisis, then it is a precedent that is protected and entitled to respect.”) Separating truth and meaning from facts and artifice is left to the traditional media, which sadly don’t spend anywhere close to enough time trying to wring out definitive or cohesive statements from this White House.

In addition to labeling “truthiness” its word of the last year, the ADS also dubbed “podcast” the most useful new term, and chose “whale tail” (the display of a thong above the waistband) as the most creative new word. Special commendation was also given to Scientologist-actor Tom Cruise for inspiring the term “jump the couch,” which stems from his outlandish antics last May, when he leapt all over Oprah Winfrey’s TV set couch while proclaiming his love for actress Katie Holmes.

* A statement credited to Mark Twain.

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