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January 11th, 2006

Words of the year

by Barbara Wallraff

Which do you think should be the Word of the Year for 2005: “truthiness,” “integrity,” “infosnacking” or “podcast”? Actually, no matter which one of these words you like, you’re in good company.

If you picked “truthiness,” you’re thinking along the same lines as the members of the American Dialect Society. These language professionals and scholars have nominated words and voted on them at every annual meeting since 1990. In the latest election, held earlier this month, “Katrina-gate” (together with all other Hurricane
Katrina-related coinages) was another strong contender. “Truthiness” won in a runoff vote -- and the society’s executive secretary, Allan Metcalf, quipped, “Truthiness will out.”

OK, “truthiness”? This word burst onto the scene a mere three months ago, in the debut of “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert’s fake-news show on Comedy Central. Colbert later defined his word like this: “a truth larger than the facts that would comprise it -- if you cared about facts, which you don’t, if you care about truthiness.” Colbert is in favor of truthiness, or so he says. But he’s a satirist, so he’s probably not telling the truth. He’s just being truthy, of course.

“Integrity” is the (strikingly different) Word of the Year according to Merriam-Webster. The dictionary company based its choice on how many times last year people looked up various words in its online dictionary, at www.m-w.com. My first reaction upon learning this was, Good grief, we’re in huge trouble if nobody knows what “integrity” means. (“Incorruptibility ... soundness ... honesty” is the way the online dictionary defines it.) But then I remembered a question readers often ask me about this word: Does it have a matching adjective, the way “honesty” has “honest” and “decency” has “decent”? Nope, it doesn’t. I’m going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume that people who look up “integrity” are trying to find that nonexistent adjective.

The editors of another dictionary, Webster’s New World, picked “infosnacking” as their Word of the Year. This one means “checking e-mail, Googling sports scores, shopping online, or surfing the latest headlines on the Internet.” The editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary picked “podcast”: “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player.” To make their choices, the editors reviewed new or newly prominent words. Their Words of the Year aren’t in their dictionaries yet, but the editors expect to include them in future editions.

You’re in good company too if instead of picking any of the options I gave, you asked yourself, Why should I choose one Word of the Year? The fourth major U.S. dictionary, the American Heritage, took pretty much this point of view. It didn’t bother summing up 2005 in a word and then issuing a press release about it. I called the dictionary’s editor, Joseph Pickett, to ask why. He’s a proud member of the American Dialect Society and participates in that group’s vote, he told me. But apart from that, he said: “I usually don’t have favorite words. I just try to take them as they come.” Sometimes I think dictionary editors take impartiality too far. But in this case, it strikes me as integrous. Oops -- I mean, I think it shows integrity.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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