Saturday, December 09, 2006

Word of the Year: Truthiness

The best satire pokes holes in our conceptions of who we are -- reveals the darkness beneath beliefs that are too easy or too simple. Right now, there are few people better at doing this in America than Stephen Colbert. The Guardian (UK) reports that Merriam-Webster has chosen "Truthiness," a word of Colbert's creation, as it's word of the year.
The word - if one can call it that - best summed up 2006, according to an online survey by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.

"Truthiness'' was credited to Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert, who defined it as "truth that comes from the gut, not books.''

"We're at a point where what constitutes truth is a question on a lot of people's minds, and truth has become up for grabs,'' said Merriam-Webster president John Morse. "'Truthiness' is a playful way for us to think about a very important issue.''

Other Top 10 finishers included "war,'' "insurgent,'' "sectarian'' and "corruption.'' But "truthiness'' won by a 5-to-1 margin, Morse said.

Colbert, who once derided the folks at Springfield-based Merriam-Webster as the "word police'' and a bunch of "wordinistas,'' was pleased.

"Though I'm no fan of reference books and their fact-based agendas, I am a fan of anyone who chooses to honor me,'' he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"And what an honor,'' he said. "Truthiness now joins the lexicographical pantheon with words like 'quash,' 'merry,' 'crumpet,' 'the,' 'xylophone,' 'circuitous,' 'others' and others.''

Colbert first uttered "truthiness'' during an October 2005 broadcast of "The Colbert Report,'' his parody of combative, conservative talk shows.
Truthiness might be seen by some as a "playful" attack on irrational thinking, but it points to a deeper issue in this country that needs to be addressed. Colbert repeatedly finds humorous ways to expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist thinking.

The question that comes to mind is this: since they are tackling the same issue, who will be more effective in changing minds, Stephen Colbert or Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins?

Which is the more effective tool, satire or ridicule? They are not the same thing. Colbert's brand of satire can get even the targets of his humor laughing along with him (if we exclude the White House Roast from earlier this year, where he was not well-received by the President and his people).

In the tradition of the court jester, Colbert speaks truth to power. But he does so with the message encased in laughter. Laughter can make the bitter pill a little more acceptable, and as such, there is a greater chance the message will get through.

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