What is Truth?

truth 1

As part of our TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification, we had to examine how dictionaries evolved over time, and what that tells us about our changing society. One particular exercise involved comparing the meaning of “truth” in the 1828, 1913 and 2012 editions of Webster’s dictionary, which I found to be very interesting.

1828: http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,truth
1913: http://machaut.uchicago.edu/?resource=Webster%27s&word=truth&use1913=on
2012: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/truth?show=0&t=1361075784

Webster’s 1828 edition has thirteen definitions of truth, while both the 1913 and 2012 editions have four. However, the four definitions in the later editions have multiple parts, so some of the secondary meanings in the first edition are in fact embedded within the latter’s multi-part definitions. Rather than compare each part in detail, some revealing observations can be made by examining the most important first definition, as well as what’s included and what’s dropped.

Both the 1828 and 1913 editions define truth as conformity to fact or reality. Both assumed the existence of an external standard which is factual and real, and truth is that which conforms to this objective standard. Furthermore, this exact accordance is with that which is, or has been, or shall be. In other words, the standard is unchanging, or absolute. What was true in the past, is true in the present, and will be true in the future.

In contrast, the 2012 edition defines truth as sincerity in action, character, and utterance. In other words, truth is subjective. If one is sincere in what he does, in who he is, and what he says, then that is truth to him. What he believes in may not conform to fact or reality, but that does not matter, because truth is relative, not absolute. This reveals that “educated society” has abandoned the notion of absolute truth in favor of relative truth, and relativism has become the foundation.

Secondly, Webster’s 1828 edition quoted only from the Bible for examples of what constituted proper usage of the words. The 1913 edition still quoted from the Bible, but added examples from other literary authorities such as Shakespeare, Coleridge, Mortimer etc. The 2012 dropped references from the Bible altogether. What this reflected is a drift away from Scripture as the final authority, to the Bible as one source amongst many, to the Bible being no longer regarded as authoritative and relevant. No wonder we are facing so many problems, and people are throwing up their hands in despair!

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