First it was "alternative facts." Now we can't even have "truth."
Rudy Giuliani raised eyebrows across the punditsphere this week, thanks to his appearance on "Meet the Press" on August 19. He and host Chuck Todd were discussing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, specifically whether Giuliani was advising his client President Donald Trump stall in order to avoid testifying before Mueller.
The former New York City mayor didn't take the implication too kindly: "Look, I am not going to be rushed into having [Donald Trump] testify so that he gets trapped into perjury. And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth."
Todd, laughing at the incredulity of it all, interjected, "Truth is truth," to which Giuliani promptly responded "No, truth isn't truth!" And just to be clear, Giuliani repeated himself: "Truth isn't truth."
Todd warned Giuliani that this moment was about to become a bad meme, and he was not wrong. Comparisons to George Orwell's "1984" and the Bible’s Pontius Pilate littered social media. Even everyone's favorite snarky dictionaries (including the one I was a lexicographer at for two decades) got into the act:
Giuliani’s latest foot-in-mouth moment was cringe-inducing for a lot of reasons, but the pain was perhaps especially acute for lexicographers like me. Giuliani's statement isn’t just gibberish — it exploits the flexibility of language.
Language is like the proverbial shark: It has to keep moving or it dies. This means that many things we assume are fixed, like the meanings of words, are constantly in flux. A word can have several meanings, some of them contradictory, some of them fleeting. So how do lexicographers decide which of those meanings to keep and which to junk? They listen to the vox populi.
All the speakers of a language, as they use a word, tacitly agree on what that word means in its particular context by continuing to use a word with that meaning in that context. When an old word like "chair," for example, gets applied to a new concept or thing (say, the head of a department or group of people), it isn't corruption, but instead a popularity contest. Will this new use catch on, or will it drop off? It is a tremendously democratic process.
But there are always bad actors trying to game the system. We have lots of words to describe their tactics — "propaganda," "spin," "red herrings," "moving the goalposts," even "out and out lies" — but the goal is always the same: to use the flexibility of language to try to alter reality. We're seeing a variation of this happening right now, and it's being led in part by President Donald Trump and White House officials.
First, some history. When the word "truth" first appeared some 1,000-odd years ago in Old English, it referred very broadly to loyalty or fidelity. This early meaning has a very Trumpian ring to it, but this definition could also refer to personal integrity or honesty, a confessed loyalty or faithfulness to a person or idea, or a pact which expressed one's loyalty to a person or idea. (That last meaning lives on in the word’s archaic cousin "troth," which shows up occasionally in fancy wedding vows as "to plight one's troth.")
By the 1300s, the idea of “fidelity" had moved beyond the individual. The word "truth" could now refer to a religious doctrine around which you ordered your life, to a proverb or platitude that was held to be accurate, to a statement that represented reality, or to reality itself.
And here's where things can get dicey. The word "truth" can refer to things that, when, examined, don't conform to reality as we know it. Jane Austen opens “Pride and Prejudice” with the now very well-known sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." But a careful examination of grocery store gossip magazines shows that many single men in possession of a good fortune are not attempting to get married. Similarly, when we ask people on the witness stand to swear that they will tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," doesn't it imply that there's some kind of truth that isn't covered by the phrase "the whole truth," some kind of truth that can omit important details and still be somehow true?
And here's where things can get dicey. The word "truth" can refer to things that, when, examined, don't conform to reality as we know it.
Lexicographers talk about this disconnect between things and the words that describe them as "real defining" versus "lexical defining." Real defining is the attempt to explain the essential nature of a thing, to sum up what it truly is. It answers questions like "what is truth?" or "what is love?" and it is the province of philosophers and theologians. Lexical defining, on the other hand, is what lexicographers do. It is the attempt to explain what a word means within a particular context. It answers questions like "what does the word 'love' mean in 'I love pizza,' and how is that different from the 'love' in 'I love my mom'?" Lexical defining is as different from real defining as a teddy bear is from a charging grizzly.
This difference presents problems with words like "truth." Truth (the thing) seems like it should be fixed, immutable, but "truth" (the word) is anything but. And this flexibility is what enables Giuliani to execute the linguistic sleight of hand of "truth isn't truth." His claim is that both former FBI director James Comey and Donald Trump could give Robert Mueller what they considered their "truth" (lexical defining), but there would be no way of knowing which statement was objectively true (real defining).
Realizing that he had stepped into a steaming pile of ontology on-air, Giuliani scrambled to clarify — but the damage had already been done.
Very few people seemed to have noticed he had moved the goalposts. The conversation was no longer about whether Trump would perjure himself on the stand, but was instead about how elusive some hypothetical truth is.
One of the constants of English is that it changes; because of this, English speakers have gotten very good at sniffing out when language is flexing naturally and when it's being twisted. Samuel Johnson, the famous British lexicographer, understood that though the meanings of words change, their primary purpose was to communicate clearly, not obfuscate. In 1758, he wrote, "When speech is employed only as the vehicle of falsehood, every man must disunite himself from others, inhabit his own cave, and seek prey only for himself." Todd gave Giuliani the opportunity to walk out of his cave, but he steadfastly, loyally retreated.
Kory Stamper has been a lexicographer for 20 years, and has written about the intersection between language and dictionaries since 2010. Her book "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries" will be released in paperback by Vintage this spring.