Truthiness, Transparency and Other Words I Had Banished

I am the guy who got truthiness put on the Banished Words List for 2007. The Stephen Colbert lobby just proved to be too strong, though, and the sentence was reversed in 2008, turning banishment into what was, effectively, a one-year suspension.

I bring this up now because Lake Superior State University released its 2010 list of banished words and I helped put a couple on there: shovel-ready and transparency.

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Every New Year’s Day since 1976, the school has released a “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.” The list is for fun, but people take it seriously.

For shovel-ready, a key to obtaining stimulus money for construction, I wrote, “Stick a shovel in it. It’s done.” Transparency? I wrote, “I just don’t see it.” Other nominators had choice things to say about both terms.

A couple of years ago I nominated truthiness, a real word that was give a new life and meaning when Stephen Colbert started using it and legions of others picked it up and misused it.

When I nominated it for banishment, I wrote, “This word, popularized by The Colbert Report and exalted by the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2005, has been used up. What used to ring true is getting all the truth wrung out of it.”

I felt I had given the word and Colbert their propers, but Colbert fans were not amused. They were enraged that truthiness had been plutoed (2007 Word of the Year by American Dialect Society: “To pluto is to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.”

People posted their protests. One writer, signed Stephen Colbert, wrote, “How dare my word get put on this list! Have you know, Truthiness won the Word of the Year.”

Others, who were not identified as Stephen Colbert, said truthiness was getting a bad rap, was really needed and was a satirical joke that I apparently did not get.

Colbert himself protested the banishment in this Jan. 8, 2007, video, saying Lake Superior State University was an “attention-seeking second-tier state university.” My.

The academy blinked. Its 2008 Banished Words list said, “This year, in a gesture of humanitarian relief, the committee restores “truthiness,” banned on last year’s list, to formal use. This comes after comedians and late-night hosts were thrown under the bus and rendered speechless by a nationwide professional writers’ strike. The silence is deafening.”

Thank heavens. Truthiness figures prominently in “Wikiality,” Colbert’s “Truthiness Encyclopedia.” (No, I am not nominating Wikiality for banishment.)

Why do I bother?

In my writing and editing classes, I encourage students to be on guard against clichés, jargon and journalese. In effect, I want them banished from news copy. Journalists at the Free Press, at various times, have banned “Snow fun” from early-winter photo captions and “Tasty treats” from food page headlines.

I would put truthiness in the category of quickchés. (A word I actually did invent, but no one uses it. Feel free.) Quickchés are catchy words or phrases that go viral through popular culture and become hackneyed overnight. Think “Field of [insert anything].”

I’ll be looking for words to banish in 2010, too. Which ones? We will find out in the foreseeable future (banished in 2002).

Please, e-mail me a question about growing your career. Or leave feedback on jargon, clichés and word banishment.

Career chat: I hope you’ll join Poynter’s Colleen Eddy and me for a free, live chat at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6. We’ll talk about strategies for making the most of 2010. You will find us on the Poynter Online chats page.

Coming Tuesday: She is looking for an internship and wants to move away from home, but thinks she needs to find an internship that includes housing arrangements. I disagree.

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