As advertised, the American Dialect Society picked its word of the year on Jan. 6, and chose a dark horse: truthiness. It was coined as a word of the day by the satirical U.S. show The Colbert Report in its debut on Oct. 17, and typifies the world view of Stephen Colbert's persona on that show -- a self-important blowhard transparently modelled on cable talk-show commentators who love the sound of their own shallow opinions. Truthiness, he said, refers to opinions that are not in fact true but that the speaker wishes were true and that, in a better, more sympathetically conservative world, would be true. "Now," Colbert said, "I'm sure some of the word police, the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's, are gonna say, 'Hey, that's not a word.' . . . [But]I don't trust books. They're all facts, no heart."
The word has not yet caught on in print, and is awkward enough that The New York Times had to run a correction on Oct. 25 because its TV Watch column misstated the word as "trustiness." But the American Dialect Society's imprimatur -- defining it as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" -- may help it along. It is even possible to extend the brand, as the marketing folks would say: truth lite, truth-like, truthful-ish. The Indian Express in New Delhi did its bit to further the word's global reach. "For all the self-conscious haze about its meaning, and perhaps because of it, truthiness is a wonderfully portable term," the paper wrote on Dec. 30. No corner of the world is untouched by spin doctors.
Truthiness's victory relegated Katrina and its offshoots (Katrinagate, for the scandalous failure to provide assistance after that hurricane) to second place. But one of the other contenders, podcast, was voted most useful word; it takes its name from iPod, a popular brand of electronic music-storing gizmo, and describes "a digital feed containing audio or video files for downloading to a portable MP3 player" such as the iPod. Whale tail was picked as the year's most creative word: "the appearance of thong or G-string underwear above the waistband of pants, shorts or a skirt." And the winner in the category of most unnecessary word of the year was K. Fed, the dismissive short form of Kevin Federline, universally belittled spouse of singer Britney Spears. It's modelled on Jennifer Lopez's sobriquet J. Lo, and predates 2005, having appeared in an article in the magazine Entertainment Weekly on Oct. 8, 2004: "But at his Sept. 18 surprise 'nuptials' to Brit, K-Fed took his poor-man's-Justin style to a whole new level." If Federline and Spears are ever divorced -- a subject of lively speculation on the celebrity-gossip shows -- his name may be speedily revised to Fed-Ex.
Closer to home, Canadians will be voting in 308 ridings on Jan. 23 and may even be riding to the polls, but the word has nothing to do with anything ridden. Reader Helen Lennon writes: "When I lived in Yorkshire, England, the county was divided into three ridings, East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire. It had been so since the Viking invasions and the word 'riding' came from the Viking word 'threthingr,' meaning one third. Some time in the 1970s, the local councils changed the names of the boundaries, much to the disgust of proud Yorkshiremen. What, then, is the origin of the word as it is used in Canada? It can't have any connection with thirds, can it?"
The connection is there, but faint. Pre-Confederation elements of Canada borrowed the word by the late 1700s from Britain, which had in turn borrowed it from Yorkshire for use at home and in its colonies. The riding for the most part shed its association with three parts once it left Yorkshire -- which, as Lennon notes, lost its own three ridings in a 1974 reorganization -- but the word definitely has its origin in the Old Norse word for third part (another spelling is thrithjungr), in turn derived from third ( thrithi); the initial th disappeared because, when following east, west or north, it was rendered superfluous by the final t or th of those words. The 308 candidates who come third on Jan. 23 can at least console themselves that their standings carry an echo of word history.