Since 2004 Oxford Dictionary has announced its word of the year. The word selected is supposed to sum up the “ethos, mood, or preoccupation of that particular year,” but the word of the year is also supposed to have lasting potential for cultural significance.
In 2016 I hoped Oxford Dictionary chose “fake news” as its word of the year. I wanted Oxford to define “fake news” for me because I didn’t think the adjective—fake—fit the term. The word “fake” is defined as not genuine, the example the dictionary gave was “fake designer clothes.” In the fashion world a “fake design” is also called a knockoff.
Does knockoff news make sense?
Of course not, news can only be accurate or inaccurate. To me the term “fake news” applied to The Daily Show on Comedy Central, because it opened with a pretend news segment. But the public was in on the joke, just like a buyer is aware that he or she purchased a knockoff.
Unfortunately, Oxford Dictionary didn’t select “fake news” for its word of the year, but I got what I was looking for when Merriam-Webster Dictionary explained why the term “fake news” wouldn’t enter their dictionary anytime soon.
The technical reason was fake news is a self-explanatory compound noun—a combination of two distinct words, both well-known, which when used in combination yielded an easily understood meaning. Then Merriam-Webster clarified, “Fake news is, simply, news (material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast) that is fake. (false, counterfeit)”
Here, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary interchanged fake and false when the other dictionary I used to define fake didn’t, but Merriam-Webster had a historical reason for their interchange.
Merriam-Webster claimed the term “fake news” isn’t new.
It’s been around since the 1890s. In 1891 the Buffalo Commercial stated, the public does not desire distortions of facts and enlargements of incidents; and it certainly has no genuine appetite for fake news.
Merriam-Webster also explained, one reason fake news is such a recent addition to our vocabulary is that the word “fake” is also fairly young. Fake was little used as an adjective prior to the late 18th century.
So, what adjective was used before the 1890s?
According to Merriam-Webster the common term was false news.
That provided some clarity until it was announced that the 2016 Oxford Dictionary word of the year was post-truth. Post-truth is defined as relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Truth is defined as in accordance with fact or reality, or, a fact or belief, that is accepted as true. Post-truth claims the second definition.
Earlier I said news could only be accurate or inaccurate, and if a news report is not in accordance with fact or reality then the Merriam-Webster Dictionary would call it false/fake news. But if the news reports a fact, accepted to be true, and the accepted fact isn’t in accordance with reality, is this false/fake news or is the news post-truth?
Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year was toxic.
That’s a good adjective for post-truth.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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