After another night of fitful sleep, I get up and resignedly make coffee. I get back into bed to drink it, propping myself up against the bedhead with two pillows (one plump, one thin). I do a quick, nervous sweep of the headlines. Because it has come to this. A quotidian fear of some new crack in the collective psyche, a meatier madness, a lowlier low. Since we are now forced to ration our incredulity, I will focus on something that enraged me so much when I read it late last night that I suspect it may have contributed to the fitfulness of my repose. The OED’s word of the year for 2016 is ‘post-truth’.
The OED said that usage of the term had increased by 2,000% compared to the previous year and it was predominantly used in connection with the UK’s referendum on whether or not to leave the EU (“YES!”) and Trump’s presidential campaign to out-trump himself. Much will be written about ‘post-truth’ today. These texts will mostly adhere to the rules of syntax and will broadly respect the semantic definitions painstakingly laid out in various dictionaries. They will mention some other contenders for the nominal honour, such as Brexiteer (definition: “A deluded, petty, insular, complex-ridden, misinformed, singularly unimpressive individual who projects all their many cowardly fears onto phantom foes such as political unions and immigrants”).
I once knew a philosopher who was an impressive specimen of a man both intellectually and physically (despite being in his 50s, he played basketball once a week). There was something charmingly, reassuringly old-school about him. He only condescended to engage with a few philosophers, such as Descartes, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. I asked him how he could so casually dismiss post-modernism. He replied that ‘post’ is a dangerous misnomer – modernism itself is yet to be resolved.
The reason I went to bed enraged is that I was furious with the OED for officially legitimizing a word that may yet become a justification for (presently unthinkable) future horrors. I know those who compile the OED are merely the faithful keepers of the language: they observe how it is used and record it. But the OED is also as close to scripture as many of us can get: it is the nominal basis of meaning. I feel that our intrepid lexicographers could have used their discretion to influence the language with which this nightmare is playing out by ignoring the noxious idea of ‘post-truth’, by expunging it from the historical record.
A war of words is coming (if it isn’t already upon us). Sticks and stones may break my bones but a good dictionary can also inflict real damage if forcefully whacked upon a head. It will be a shrill war, a cacophony of competing voices. There will be nonsense. Vast, vomitous volumes of it.
Back in the good old days of the true-true, I used to dream of working for the OED as a lexicographer. It was the only job that ever really interested me. I would imagine sipping tea from a steaming mug of tea, browsing through the day’s newspapers in the hunt for interesting new words, safe in the knowledge that everything was more or less fine: the world turned, historic lessons got learned, vitally strategic bridges no longer got burned.
But “the news” escaped, got out. It had been confined to an officially sanctioned, theatrically partisan language (true vs false, left vs right, etc.). In recent years, however, “the news” evolved and adapted, fungus-like, to exploit social media outlets. It is now a circular maze of misinformation and deliberate disinformation. The buffoonery of the tabloids used to be safely contained within their manageable format, their almost comfortingly familiar ‘red tops’ (like the tinfoil tops of the milk bottles I would wake up to find each morning on my doorstep). Now it has spilled over into something we have not seen on this scale since the 1930s: pure (and frighteningly puerile) hatred.
We have just witnessed the remarkable appearance of the so-called supermoon (sadly reduced to a cameo in overcast Lithuania). Perhaps our moon’s close proximity exerted some momentary lunacy on us. Perhaps it tidally pulled us wishy-washy humans to the brink of greed and hate-fuelled revolution. Perhaps now that it is waning we will become a little saner once again. The last time the moon was this close to earth was in 1948. The world had just lost 60 million people through conflict. The number beggars belief: say it aloud, chew it over in your mouth, try it out for size. They say what goes around comes around. But not that. Never that.
Post-truth? Fuck you.