Oxford English Dictionary Names 'Post-Truth' Word of the Year

Trump, Brexit-inspired word claims title over "alt-right," "woke," "coulrophobia"

The Oxford English Dictionary named "post-truth" its 2016 word of the year over terms like "alt-right," "woke" and "coulrophobia." Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

The Oxford English Dictionary named "post-truth" its 2016 international word of the year in a fittingly political race that featured terms like "alt-right," "Brexiteer" and "woke," The New York Times reports.

The OED 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." According to an analysis of the Oxford English Corpus – which collects millions of words of spoken and written English from various sources – usage of "post-truth" increased by 2,000 percent over the past year, especially around June following the Brexit vote and the continued success of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

"What we found especially interesting is that it encapsulated a trans-Atlantic phenomenon," said Katherine Connor Martin, the head of the United States dictionaries at Oxford University press. "Often, when looking at words, you'll find one that's a really big deal in the U.K. but not in the U.S."

Despite being inextricably linked to 2016's two great political upheavals, "post-truth" has been in use since at least 1992 when it appeared in a Nation article about the Iran-contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War. The word is also reminiscent of Stephen Colbert's infamous "truthiness," which defines truth as not fact, but a gut-level feeling, and which both Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society named Word of the Year in 2005.

Martin, however, parsed the differences between the two, saying, "Truthiness is a humorous way of discussing a quality of specific claims. Post-truth is an adjective that is describing a much bigger thing. It's saying that the truth is being regarded as mostly irrelevant."

Among the other words shortlisted for this year's OED prize were "adulting" (trying to behave like a grown-up), "glass cliff" (a phenomenon in which women are likely to achieve leadership roles when the chance of failure is highest) and "coulrophobia," an extreme or irrational fear of clowns, which spiked after numerous reports of killer clowns surfaced this fall. 

None perhaps would have been more controversial a choice than "alt-right," a term that also rose in popularity alongside Trump. Martin noted Oxford struggled to come up with an exact definition, ultimately settling on "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." While many on the left have started criticizing the term for being a euphemism for white supremacy, Martin said "alt-right" isn't a "simple synonym" for white supremacy, but it can provide a soft facade for a generally extreme ideology.

"What I would say as a lexicographer is that in choosing whether to say 'alt-right' or 'white supremacist,' it's important to know what you mean," she said.

In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary named the "Face With Tears of Joy" emoji its word of the year, while the 2014 and 2013 distinction went to "vape" and "selfie," respectively.