The dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In this case, the “post-” prefix doesn't mean “after” so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant — but then again, who says you have to take our word for it anymore?
Throughout a grueling presidential campaign in which accusations of lies and alternate realities flowed freely, in every direction, hundreds of fact checks were published about statements from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Dozens of media outlets found that Trump's relationship with the truth was, well, complicated.
“We concede all politicians lie,” conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in September. “Nevertheless, Donald Trump is in a class by himself.”
She cited The Atlantic's David Frum, who described Trump's dishonesty in May as “qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee.”
None of this seemed to matter significantly to those who supported him.
“There is no doubt that even in the quadrennial truth-stretching that happens in presidential campaigns, Trump has set records for fabrication,” Chris Cillizza wrote days before the election.
And yet, Cillizza noted, Trump was seen as more honest than Clinton by an eight-point margin, according to a Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released on Nov. 2.
“Post-truth” was selected after Oxford's dictionary editors noted a roughly 2,000 percent increase in its usage over 2015 — it was appearing with far more frequency in news articles and on social media in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
The first spike came in June, driven by the rhetoric leading up to Britain's European Union referendum, Oxford Dictionaries President Casper Grathwohl said in a statement.
“Post-truth” usage spiked again in July after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse,” Grathwohl said. “Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.”
“Post-truth” was selected as the 2016 word of the year even before results of the election were known, said Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press.
“We choose words that are going to highlight the interplay between our words and our culture,” Martin said. The final word of the year is meant to be one that captures the “ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”
The Washington Post's own Fact Checker blog, which published 314 fact checks of the candidates who ran for president during the 2016 election cycle, has noted that “in many ways, it was an unbalanced race” — but didn't go so far as to endorse the term “post-truth.”
“I have never been a fan of the word 'post-truth,' since it’s a facile way to describe basic human behavior since the first words were spoken,” The Fact Checker's Glenn Kessler said in an email. “People have always been swayed by emotions and personal beliefs. As fact checkers, we give people the factual information and context for statements made by politicians. What people do with those facts is up to them.”
The Fact Checker's Michelle Ye Hee Lee noted that of the blog's 314 fact checks for this election, 168 were about claims made by Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. And of those, Trump received 59 “Four-Pinocchio” ratings, while Clinton got seven.
Trump's average Pinocchio rating was 3.4, breaking Rep. Michele Bachmann's previous worst Pinocchio average of 3.08 in 2012.
Clinton, on the other hand, ended up with an average Pinocchio rating of 2.2, putting her in the same range as President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, she said.
And what did people do with these facts? They elected Trump the 45th president of the United States.
For what it's worth, “post-truth” is not to be confused with “truthiness,” a subtly different term popularized by Stephen Colbert more than a decade ago that described the phenomenon of “believing something that feels true, even if it isn't supported by fact.”
“Now I'm sure some of the word police, the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's, are gonna to say, hey, that's not a word,” said Colbert in the 2005 segment that introduced the word. “Well, anybody who knows me know that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist! Constantly telling us what is or isn't true. or what did or didn't happen.”
At the time, Colbert was still playing an exaggerated caricature of a conservative political-show host.
“Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914?!" he continued in the segment. “If I want to say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.”
Merriam-Webster made “truthiness” its 2006 word of the year.
And if anything, the rise of truthiness cleared the path for “post-truth,” as in: “In a post-truth world, truthiness is all that matters.”
“Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time,” said Grathwohl, the Oxford Dictionaries president.
Each year, the Oxford staff selects hundreds of words, then narrows that list down through discussions about “what words are going to best highlight the ways in which the English lexicon is changing in response to current events,” said Martin, Oxford's head of U.S. dictionaries.
This year, the shortlist included “adulting” (often packaged into the phrase “adulting so hard,” as in, “I'm adulting so hard that I bought a leaf blower and increased my contribution to my 401(k) retirement savings plan”) and hygge, which refers to a “comfortable conviviality and feeling of contentment” central to Danish culture.
“Post-truth” also beat out finalist “alt-right,” a shortening of “alternative right” defined by Oxford as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.”
Use of “alt-right” in 2016 has increased dramatically as well, in large part because of Trump's ties to prominent alt-right figures such as Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News who was just named Trump's chief White House strategist.
This year's discussion “was a bit more serious and somber … than it has been in some other years,” Martin said.
For those who have forgotten, the Oxford Dictionaries' 2015 word of the year was, for the first time ever, an emoji — specifically, this one: 😂
The Oxford Dictionaries usually announces the word of the year in mid-November. But Martin noted there was still time for the mood to shift during the end of the year.
“Who knows what will happen in the last [weeks] of 2016?” she said. “Hopefully something really wonderful that gives us another idea.”