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Word of the year: post-truth

"Post-truth? Sure it is having its day, but it is a mere sapling." Paula Reiter, chair of the English program, tells us about the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year: post-truth.

On Thursday, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its word of the year. It may not surprise anyone that the selection reflects the chaos and uncertainty that characterized politics in both the UK and the US this past year. The OED defines the winning word, post-truth, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

My response to learning that post-truth was selected as the word of the year was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I found it depressing that we need a word to denote how far a reverence for or even recognition of the truth has fallen. How could truth become irrelevant? Many of the other contenders for word of the year were nearly as discouraging, for example, alt-right, Brexiteer, coulrophobia, glass cliff, and woke.

On the other hand, as an English professor with a lesson on language change to teach, I found the announcement stimulating. What would my student make of this choice? How would they see their culture and history reflected in the rise of this term? As it turns out, my students are well aware of the word “post-truth,” and found nothing surprising about its selection. The need to coin a new word, rather than borrow one from another language, marks “post-truth” as a truly new concept tied firmly this particular historical moment.

By contrast, the word “true” can hardly be called a flash in the pan. The OED has recorded use of “true” dating back over 1000 years. Gina Cooke’s fascinating talk, “The True Story of True,” reveals that the earliest conception of true was connected with the longevity, strength, and the uprightness of trees. In fact, true and tree share a common linguistic ancestor. Why bring this up? I find it encouraging that our culture and language have needed the word true for over a millennium. It is ancient with solid roots and a massive trunk. Post-truth? Sure it is having its day, but it is a mere sapling. Winter is coming. Let’s see if it can last out the season. My bet remains on the true.