Why Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year Matters

At the end of the day on November 8, 2016, India’s leading bankers were called to an 8 p.m. meeting by the prime minister. Totally unprepared for what was coming, they watched as an announcement was made to the nation on live television that all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would be rendered nonnegotiable by midnight that same night. (Those are the biggest notes of currency and used for most daily expenses and all major purchases.) They were stunned, as was the nation.

The resulting financial earthquake plunged millions into chaos and confusion. The next morning before dawn the lines in front of every shuttered bank and ATM machine told the story in human fears. My colleague and I spent two days in our rooms as we couldn’t change our foreign currency. Some claimed that suicides and sudden deaths resulted.

The stated purpose for this decision is to undermine “black money,” which ranges from tax evasion to hoarding cash by terrorists. Political opponents have a different take, of course, saying that it is to restrict the financial resources of the opposition parties in the run-up to state elections. Whatever the truth, it’s something I have never witnessed in four decades of travel: a legal tender suddenly becoming valueless and small denominations having more worth than larger ones.

Value has to have a referent. Yet, at the whim of one man, everything that purportedly pointed to value was suddenly reduced to nothing. What was once “true” was now “untrue,” all to expose a lie masquerading as truth. So much for the statement of assurance, “You can take that to the bank.” 

Demonetization is one thing. Devaluing truth and truthfulness is another, and it is systemically unlivable. A few days before demonetization in India, another announcement was made that would make the effect of demonetization a vacation in comparison: Oxford English Dictionary compilers recognized “post-truth” as the new Word of the Year.

Interestingly, the media, which flirt with untruths, and the academy, which never hesitates to replace absolutes with postmodern relativism, have come together to give our culture a new word. Their explanation is not so much that they are coining a new word as that they are affirming a reality—a truth about the way we coddle the lie, the ultimate self-defeating statement. It’s a bit like another new phrase, “misremembering.”

Truth’s Postmortem

We now live in a “post-truth” culture where misremembering is normal. (Not surprisingly, within hours of the American elections, a French television network baptized our culture as “post-logic.”) These two bastions of values, the academy and the media—where relativism flows in their veins—have become the town criers of this new word. Castigating the politicians, they untruthfully predicted the destination of the untruthful. Excoriating an electorate gone amuck, they wondered how people could be duped into a lie. Having themselves swallowed a camel, they strained a gnat. They are the primary carriers of word manipulation, repeating distortions often enough to make them into truths. Caring not for truth but for effect and for the manipulation of all thinking, their victory is pyrrhic.

A soft side to the meaning of post-truth suggests that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. But the hard meaning of the word is that in this culture we willfully and justifiably convey something false because it accomplishes a personal or end goal: the end justifies the means, which do not need to justify themselves. 


Here is the post-mortem. Post-truth as a phenomenon is not new. Just as postmodern is neither post nor modern but existed in the first conversation at creation’s dawn—“Has God spoken?”—so also post-truth is actually rebellion right from the beginning. “Has God given us his word?” The answer to that question spelled life or death. 

Even manipulators of the truth know that truth is only subjective when one has victimized others and needs a fabrication. Once we remove God and decide instead to play God, truth gives way to fiction. It used to be said, “If a Cretan tells you all Cretans are liars, can you believe him?” Now we have to ask ourselves if we can believe it when a post-truth culture tells us it is a post-truth culture.

It used to be said, ‘If a Cretan tells you all Cretans are liars, can you believe him?’ Now we have to ask ourselves if we can believe it when a post-truth culture tells us it is a post-truth culture.

Historical Precedents

In the 1960s a leading magazine cover proclaimed “God Is Dead.” In the 1970s the same magazine said, “Marx is dead.” Now we have another fatality, and we are burying ourselves. Truth is dead. We have killed it. Nietzsche thought God was dead and went with a lantern looking for him. But God is not dead; truth is dead. And we have so extinguished the light of truth in our halls of learning that it is possible for a Harvard student to say, “I can believe anything I want, so long as I don’t claim it to be true.” With the death of truth, the unique capability of Homo sapiens for abstract reasoning and language is now taken to the morgue, and all language is meaningless. 

This day was envisioned half a century ago. It was a media star, Malcolm Muggeridge, who declared that the news was awash with lies and chronicled his own journey to the truth in Jesus Rediscovered. Having lived through political lie after lie and writing to cater to the masses, he said, “Yet even so, truth is very beautiful: more so I consider than justice—today’s pursuit—which easily puts on a false face. . . . [W]herever two or more are gathered to exercise authority, it is truth that has died, not God.” 

Read the convoluted stuff peddled each day in our newspapers and television networks. After the death of Fidel Castro, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared him to have been a leader who “served his own people.” Those same people were waving flags in Miami celebrating his demise. I suppose the prime minister meant that he served his people the way Stalin “served his own people.” 

Listen to the nonsense disseminated by our academics. The more bizarre the statement, the more the possibility that it came from a so-called intellectual. Ideologues masquerade as reporters, and intellectuals use the academy to spread the lie that all truth is relative. Religions are represented falsely because it suits the politician. Life is devalued because it suits our convenience. Definitions once held dear are erased, and truth is mangled at the altar of our proclivities. Cherished values and institutions are destroyed and new meanings assigned by our post-truth culture. What option do we have but to say “Truth is dead”?

Truth’s Long Arm

And yet! And yet! The tug of reality is ultimately unbreakable. 

Churchill said it well: “Truth is the most valuable thing in the world, so valuable it is often protected by a bodyguard of lies.”

Andrei Sakharov, who gave the Soviets the atomic bomb, said, “I always thought the most powerful weapon in the world was the bomb. I have changed my mind. The most powerful weapon in the world is not the bomb. It is the truth.” 

Think about this: Who are the heroes of our time? Mainly entertainers who play parts and act out roles. Their lives become so bifurcated that life now imitates art, the one discipline that claims to have no boundaries. 

The German philosopher Nietzsche warned us that since God had died in the 19th century, the 20th century would become the bloodiest century. A universal madness would break out, and the time would come when lanterns would have to be lit in the morning hours. That day is here: The year 2016 when the dictionary tells us that it can be truthfully stated that we are a post-truth culture. 

The formal announcement of a new word has shown the Bible to be true, an incredible unintended consequence. The Scriptures tell us that professing ourselves to be wise we have actually become fools; that the lie by which we live, in turn, lands us in death. 

But Nietzsche himself conceded that his unwilling piety would withstand even his strident philosophy when he said, “The real truth about ‘objective truth’ is that the latter is a fiction. . . . Truth is the name we give to that which agrees with our own instinctive preferences. It is what we call our interpretation of the world, especially when we want to foist it upon others.” But, he concluded, “I am still too pious that even I worship at the altar where God’s name is truth.”

There is an ultimate cry for justice in every heart. Justice counts on the truth. Without those two realities, civilization will die. The Bible says, “The law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Both were needed; the law, and therefore grace and truth. For the follower of Jesus, there is also hope, that hope expressed in the verse known by more people than any other: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

When you unpack that simple verse you find that it incorporates everything we need by which to live:

  • The starting point is filial
  • The giving is unconditional
  • The reception is volitional
  • The range is eternal
  • The core is judicial 

At the heart of existence is a moral law. That law had dare not be violated. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

True freedom is not the liberty to do as we please; rather, to do as we ought. For that we need the truth. The grace of God is our only hope to enable us to live by the truth. No culture can survive without this. “Thy word is truth and abides forever.”