Today, Oxford Dictionaries announces post-truth as its 2016 international Word of the Year. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team reviews candidates for word of the year and then debates their merits, choosing one that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. Language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that use of the word post-truth has increased by approximately 2,000% over its usage in 2015.
The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase ‘post-truth politics’.
The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).
‘It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse,’ says Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries. ‘Fuelled 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.’
Grathwohl goes on to say, ‘We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. 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.’
The Word of the Year need not have been coined within the past twelve months. To qualify for consideration we look for evidence that its usage has increased significantly across a broad range of media. On the basis of that evidence, post-truth made it into OxfordDictionaries.com this month.
The earliest known usage of post-truth
Post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine. Reflecting on the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich lamented that ‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world’. There is evidence of the phrase ‘post-truth’ being used before Tesich’s article, but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.