Thursday, August 4, 2016


Alternative title: When an English and a Philosophy Nerd Eat Dinner Together.

It’s actually not as frightening as it sounds.  Sometimes we do just end up talking about people and stuff.  But a lot of the time we end up analyzing whatever it is that we’re talking about, especially if it’s politics.  And this year there has been a lot of politics.

Last night the realization was that we need a new word to talk about politics (and everything else).  We already have “truthiness”, courtesy of Stephen Colbert, if I recall correctly.  Statements are “truthy” if they sound likely to be true.  Forty-one percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.  Over half of all Fords will be involved in an accident by the time they hit one hundred thousand miles.  Red grapefruits have more vitamins than yellow ones.  All the choices for president stink, including Gary Johnson.  That sort of thing.

But truthiness is meant to be a somewhat objective description of the qualities of a statement.  The speaker who acknowledges truthiness has the humility to say “I could be fooled by this truthy statement—in fact, I don’t presently know whether it’s true or false (though I certainly will after I’ve checked my Truth Machine)” (a.k.a. a smartphone).  Like being mellifluous, truthiness may be in the ear of the belistener, but only somewhat so.  There are statements that all human beings past the age of five or so would consider difficult to believe (“If you stand on your head, you will start to float upwards into the clouds”); these are not truthy, any more than fingernails on a chalkboard could be regarded as mellifluous by anyone but the most woolly-ear-drummed of persons.

But analysts (that is, anyone with a social media account) clearly need something that goes beyond the objectivity of “truthiness”.  They need something that describes not the general plausibility of a statement (“I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds true, and I’d have to check to know otherwise”) but the plausibility of a statement to a certain group of people (“I can tell that’s being spun, but I know a lot of [fill-in-the-blankers] will swallow it whole”).  We need a term, in other words, that indicates our recognition of a statement’s ability to gull.  Plausibility and believability won’t do any more than truthiness, because like truthiness they offer a generalized judgment of a word, as opposed to a differentiated one.  Not everyone can fall for every salesman’s gull (cf. Marian the Librarian).

Enter gullibiness, gulbiness, or gulpiness (which has the advantage of being easier to say and of sounding like “gulp” as well as “gull”): the quality, possessed by a video, a statement, an image, or any attempted communication of meaning, to trick a certain targeted audience into accepting it as true.

You’re welcome.