A Brief Retrospective on the Nature of Truth and Why It Confuses Us So

FLASHBACK — A Brief Retrospective on the Nature of Truth and Why It Confuses Us So

Diogenes Searching For TRUTH in Ancient Greece

 Recently, The Global Language Monitor (GLM) announced that Truth is the Word of the Year for 2017.

Austin, Texas, December 2017.  If you kept abreast of the daily press reports, you would think an outbreak of mass hysteria or at least amnesia had swept over the nations of the West. The world’s leading print and electronic media acted as if the concept of truth had been circumvented, or even, contravened, and sounded alarm after alarm that what we all knew as facts were no longer discernible. The source of this disruption in the news cycle, of course, was what came to be known as fake news and post-truth.

For historical comparisons of a number of the terms used in this analysis, GLM used the Google Ngram Viewer.   You can use the Ngram Viewer to chart frequencies of comma-delimited search strings.  The Google Ngram Viewer uses yearly counts from sources printed between 1500 and 2008, though in some cases later dates of publications are included.

In the first example, frequencies of citations between and among a number of words used to describe the Top Words of the Year for 2016 are plotted between 1940 and the present.

Figure 1. Relative Frequency of citations among words used to describe the Top Words of the Year for 2016

Figure 2. Close-up on Relative Frequency Among Some Top Words of the Year for 2016

Figure 3.  Comparisons of the Words Truth Vs. Lie Since 1740

This is why early in the century, the Global Language Monitor put into place a methodology that clearly states that each considered word or phrase must adhere to the published criteria (see below). The methodology calls for words and phrases from the entire global English linguasphere to be considered, as well as each fulfilling geographic and demographic requirements. This automatically excludes the lists created by those organizations that rely on polls and other such non-scientific tools

A Methodology Optimized for the Wired World -- GLM’s Word of the Year rankings are based upon actual word usage 
throughout the English-speaking world, which now approaches some 2.38 billion people, who use the language 
as a first, second, business language. To qualify for these lists, the words, names, and phrases must meet 
three criteria: 1) found globally, 2) have a minimum of 25,000 citations, and 3) have the requisite ‘depth’ 
and ‘breadth’ of usage. Depth is here defined as appearing in various forms of media; breadth that they must 
appear world-over, not limited to a particular profession or social group or geography. The goal is to find 
the word usage that will endure the test of time.

Global Language Monitor began to use newly available technologies to document the Words of the Year for Global English at the turn of the 21st century, with the idea to encapsulate and capture the essence of the preceding twelve months in a sort of linguistic amber.

Consider for a moment that fact that in 2009 GLM named ‘twitter’ as the Global English Word of the Year, not only as a social media phenomenon but as a potential Weapon of Mass Disruption (or even destruction). Witness: 1) the Arab Spring and 2) the actions of one Donald J. Trump.

Political Correctness

In a time so debilitated by the specter of political correctness (both from the left and the right), it seems rather demeaning to advance the concept of ‘fake news’, once you study its etymology, tracing back the origins of the word ‘fake’.

Cambridge Dictionaries’ definition of fakir: A Muslim (or, loosely, a Hindu) religious ascetic who lives solely on alms. Origin: Early 17th century: via French from Arabic faqīr. Fakir, Arabic Faqīr (“poor”), originally, a mendicant dervish. In mystical usage, the word fakir refers to man’s spiritual need for God, who alone is self-sufficient. Although of Muslim origin, the term has come to be applied in India to Hindus as well.

Fakirs are generally regarded as holy men who are possessed of miraculous powers, such as the ability to walk on fire or to subsist by looking only at the face of God.

In a Languagelog posting by Mark Liberman, How Fakirs Became Fakers, Edmund Wilson comments (from the grave) that Fakirs began to become entwined with fakers with a common usage that arose out of the American spiritualism craze of the 19th century.  This is where one can witness the shift in meaning for the word fakir, from an Islamic religious ascetic to the Hindu “Yogi,” to a sort of street corner or carnival barker or “producer of illusions”.

In other words ‘fake news” joins a long list of ethnic slurs that have imbued American English since before the founding of the republic. They are too many to repeat. However the most common of these might be ‘ethnic-group’ giver’ or ‘ethnic-group rich’. Specifically, using the term fake news could be said to humiliate and/or cast aspersions upon Muslim and/or Hindu holy men. Recent searches of the New York Times found 869 instances of ‘fake news,’ while searches of The Washington Post found 1,352. None mentioned the historical dubiousness of the practice.

You can see this linguistic shift peaking around 1940 and continuing to this day.

Figure 4. Shift in Meaning Between Fakir and Faker During the 1940s

In retrospective, even the whole idea of fake news and post-truth is a bit of an over-reaction. The organizations that were disrupted the most by the appearance of unchecked, non-verifiable and inadequately sourced stories, were those upon which the world came to rely and depend upon to safeguard the information delivered to their audiences as verifiably true. To continue in these roles as stewards of truth, it was incumbent upon them to put into place new methods of testing information.

The unvarnished truth is that the dominant news gathering and distribution organizations fell behind the curve as sources of information multiplied by orders of magnitude. Neither did they comprehend the astonishingly rapid advances in computing power. Finally, the evolution of communication and social media tools advanced far more quickly than the old line media’s ability to adapt to and absorb them.

Decades of reporting on the decline of the US manufacturing base never seemed to register to old media as applicable lessons for themselves. In the mid-’80s, an HBS case study inquired as to which fared better — companies with strategic plans in place or those that had none. The answer: a dead heat. Apparently, companies without strategic plans were able to adjust more quickly to changing market conditions while companies with strategic plans all too often, steadfastly rode these plans straight into oblivion.  (For more information on this phenomenon, check out the first two editions of In Search of Excellence.  Prepare to be shocked.)

What is Truth?

The debate over what is truth has been ongoing since the search for an ‘honest man’ by Diogenes the Cynic, the dialogues of Socrates as recorded by Plato, the rhetorical question Pontius Pilate asked of the Christ, the Confessions of Augustine, the Summa of Aquinas, and the monastic scriptoria of Medieval Europe.

In the scriptoria of the Middle Ages, an elaborate system was constructed to ensure that no discrepancies were introduced into Scripture or highly-prized scholarly works — before the coming of movable type and the printing press. Can you imagine the decibel level of a discussion that played out over the misrepresentation of a single iota when dealing with the work of a Church Father, the Apostle Peter (or Paul), or the words of the Lord himself? This, of course, was complicated by the fact that there were few grammatical rules, little or no punctuation, no spaces between and among words, nor between sentences or paragraphs, and the like.

Even in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Harvard and Yale engaged in the same sort of tussle about the owner of Truth as the Right and Left are engaged in today.  Harvard chose the Latin word Veritas (Truth) on its official seal, while Yale considered the matter closed by adding Lux et Veritas.  (Light and Truth) to its own shield.  Three hundred years later, in an academic world perhaps overly concerned with political correctness, Harvard won top honors for the Top Politically (in)Correct Word of 2016.

Watching the nightly news and reading the traditional (for the last two centuries, that is) media, one has the distinct sense that what they perceive as unprecedented almost chaotic circumstances is actually that of the normalcy of the new reality, that of communications at the speed of light that the internet has foisted upon us.

We keep hearing about this most unusual of election cycles, but this is only true when looking through the prism (and historical construct) of the traditional news gathering operations. What is called the 24-hour News Cycle is actually just the tip of the tsunami washing over the planet at an ever-quicker pace. Indeed, the nature of the beast hasn’t changed at all. It is our outdated techniques, that haven’t kept up with the new reality: News now emanates at the speed of thought, from tens of thousands or, even, millions of sources.

Can you imagine the uproar in the monastic world when documents would be produced with little or no vetting against the time-honored standards?

In 2008 GLM published an article, “Is Merriam-Webster its own Best Frenemy,” where we noted that its newest additions to its Collegiate Dictionary, were older than most entering college students at the time (28 years vs 18!)  Indeed, for the most part, technology could solve most of the Post-truth and Fake News phenomena.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Global Language Monitor (GLM) has named the Top Words of Global English. A decade earlier, the American Dialect Society began to name the Word of The Year for mostly American (and a bit of British) English with little or no use of the then emerging computer power. By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the BBC chose the Global Language Monitor to determine the Top English Words of the Decade worldwide while they chose an UK-based Linguist to highlight those of the UK.

One of the most surprising trends in the evolution of the Words of the Year over the last two decades is that they have become decidedly more parochial, and more trivial, as the century has progressed. Now there are about a dozen players, all competing for the same space, so the race has been one of dumbing down the various nominees and ultimate winner in an apparently desperate attempt to seek the lowest common denominator, or even worse, to optimize entertainment value.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the apparent lack of preparation by the venerable incumbent organizations responsible for gathering, sifting through, and certifying information that then qualifies as verifiably newsworthy.

Apocalyptic language has been widely cited as word of the year worthy for the last several years — and rightly so. In fact, Apocalypse and Armageddon took Global Language Monitors’ honors as Top Global English Words of 2012. And though GLM’s proprietary algorithms have displayed a predictive element, it’s entirely possible that Apocalyptic language did indeed peak some five years too soon.


About the Global Language Monitor

In 2003, The Global Language Monitor (GLM) was founded in Silicon Valley by Paul J.J. Payack on the understanding that new technologies and techniques were necessary for truly understanding the world of Big Data, as it is now known.

Today, from its home in Austin, Texas GLM provides a number of innovative products and services that utilize its ‘algorithmic services’ to help worldwide customers protect, defend and nurture their branded products and entities. Products include ‘brand audits’ to assess the current status, establish baselines, and competitive benchmarks for current intellectual assets and brands, and to defend products against ambush marketing.

These services are currently provided to the Fortune 500, the Higher Education market, high technology firms, the worldwide print, and electronic media, as well as the global fashion industry, among others.

For more information, call 1.512.801-6823, email info@LanguageMonitor.com, or visit www.LanguageMonitor.com.

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Intro to “Word of the Year” Phenomenon

Paul JJ Payack’s Brief Intro to the WOTY Phenomenon

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