Brexit and the election of Donald Trump signified huge changes in the West’s political climate, and one thing that’s guaranteed from large-scale societal shifts is new language. In recent months, two new phrases have entered the English language, but these are phrases that not everyone is happy with. If you’ve watched the BBC or CNN recently, you can’t have failed to hear the terms alternative facts and post-truth politics.
Let’s start with post-truth politics. Wikipedia describes post-truth politics as “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion,” and the adjectival phrase post-truth was actually crowned 2016’s ‘Word of the Year’ by Oxford Dictionaries. The phrase post-truth politics gained traction in the summer of that year during the midst of the Brexit referendum, when it became apparent that truth and facts had little to do with the way people were voting. Post- means after, and the phrase therefore suggests that society has moved beyond the need for truth. The now infamous Brexit Bus has come to epitomise post-truth politics, with Boris Johnson and his pro-Brexit team suggesting the UK would spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS (Britain’s public-sector health service) if the UK voted to leave the EU. Very few people really believed this at the time, and it was no surprise when – less than 24 hours after the country voted itself out of the EU – the Leave campaign admitted that the NHS wouldn’t get the extra money. It didn’t matter. We live in a post-truth world, and the only thing that was important was the emotions stirred by this promise.
Alternative facts is an even more recent phrase, having risen to prominence in the days after Donald Trump’s election. Both Trump and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s, with Spicer even claiming it was the largest ever inauguration crowd in history. This claim was demonstrably false, as shown in the picture below, and when Kellyanne Conway (Counselor to President Trump) was asked about this, she claimed that Spicer hadn’t lied, he had simply given alternative facts, i.e. facts that are different to the real ones. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Conway’s phrase doesn’t make sense, and despite its newness, the phrase is already used all over the world as a joke. Whenever someone catches you lying, simply claim it’s an alternative fact, and they’ll probably (maybe …) see the funny side.
As a result of Conway’s new phrase, there has been a surge of interest in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s story is a damning critique of all-powerful governments and the way they manipulate their citizens through the control of information. This book spawned numerous new words and phrases into the English language, with doublethink bearing a remarkable similarity to Conway’s alternative facts. Orwell defines doublethink as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.”
While this post-truth world may be scary for some, it promises to be an interesting time for linguists. I’ll be surprised if Trump doesn’t spawn at least ten new words or phrases into everyday use by the end of his first year in office.