On this date in 2005, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert unveiled a new word “truthiness.” Speaking in the satiric tone familiar to fans of his show The Colbert Report, he introduced the word as follows:
And on this show, your voice will be heard… in the form of my voice. ‘Cause 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 wordanistas 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 (1).
On this night’s show the irony was especially thick, however, because as it turned out truthiness was not a new coinage after all. As pointed out on the language website Language Log, the word dates back to 1824 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2).
Even though Colbert cannot claim credit for coining the work, he can claim to have popularized it. In fact, he got the last laugh on the “wordanistas” when The American Dialect Society selected truthiness as its Word of the Year in 2005.
New words, also known as neologisms, are popping up more than ever in the age of technology and the internet. So many newly minted words are appearing, in fact that there are entire websites devoted to tracking neologisms. One such site is Word Spy, where visitors can witness the genesis and evolution of words before their very eyes. The words at Word Spy are not in the dictionary; instead, the are mere candidates for the big lexicographical show. If they catch on and are used by real people, especially in written communication, they may make it from Word Spy to Webster’s.
In the book Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, Christopher Johnson traces the various paths that neologisms take from creation to dictionary. To illustrate the different ways words are formed, Johnson provides the following seven methods of construction:
- Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
- Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
- Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
- Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
- Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
- Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
- Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)
One of the oldest sources of new word coinages comes under Johnson’s second category. It’s a special kind of compound word called a kenning – a figurative compound word construction. In the Old English poem Beowulf, for example, a “ship” becomes a “sea-steed” or the “sea” becomes the “whale-road” (3). Although kennings are a very old form they represent one of the most vibrant and playful aspects of our language, an aspect that we see alive in our language today in the following examples:
Hot potato = something no one wants
Rug rat = toddler or crawling baby
Treehugger = an environmentalist
Bookworm = someone who reads a lot
Pig-skin = a football
Gas-guzzler = a car with poor gas milage (4)
Notice that characteristic of a kenning, each example above is made up of two words to form a compound word. Furthermore, each kenning makes no direct reference to the person or thing it is naming; instead, each relies on a figurative comparison. Each kenning, therefore, is a beautifully package compact metaphor.
Today’s Challenge: Coin a Kenning
What new two-word figurative combination would you use to rename a noun, such as a pencil, a Post-it Note, a teacher, a bank, or cat? Play around with words by creating some of your own kennings. Pick a noun and brainstorm some ideas. Remember, to qualify as a kenning your compound must by figurative, so avoid directly naming the person or thing you’re renaming. A pencil for example might be a word-wand, a thought twig, or a sentence stick. Once you have a few ideas, pick your best one, and begin actually using it in conversation. This will be the true test of whether or not it resonates and packs a powerful enough punch to be picked up by real people. (Common Core Reading 4 – Interpret Words and Phrases)
Quotation of the Day: And so people say to me, “How do I know if a word is real?” You know, anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it. That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real. -Erin McKean, The Joy of Lexicography TED Talk
1 October 17 Coin a Word Day word spy – popularize See TED talk on lexicography – love –http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/search/label/Word%20origins
3-Christopher Johnson. Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011: 163.