If you’re the sort of person who is either cynical or obsessively objective, then it’s likely you already know – and use – the word verisimilitude. In a world where Truth is slipperier than an eel in a bucket of grease, there are times when you have to fall back on acknowledging that something can’t be proved to be true but has the appearance of being true. Having the appearance of Truth is verisimilitude.
The word has the same root as the word verify, which means “to show to be true by demonstration or evidence” or “to confirm the truth or authenticity of.” (OED, Vol. XIX, p. 540). When signing the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the Soviet Union, he used the phrase “Trust… but verify” to signal that he was all for trusting the Soviets to remove nuclear missiles but physically checking it was happening was important.
The veri– element originates from the Latin verus, meaning true, or verum meaning truth. The second part comes from Latin similis, meaning like. So the word literally means “like the truth.” It makes an appearance in 1603 in Holland’s Plutarch’s Philosophie, commonlie called The Morals, in the sentence “If we wil use the rule of probability and verisimilitude.”
In 2005, the word of the year was the modern version verisimilitude; truthiness. This was first used by the comedian Stephen Colbert in the satirical show, The Colbert Report. The word itself was not invented by Colbert and exists in the OED as a variant of the word truthy. It was used by J.J. Gurney (1824) – “Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.” But it could be argued – and I will – that this is not quite the intended meaning of Colbert’s truthiness, which I suggest is more accurately being used as a synonym for verisimilitude.
The darker truth about verisimilitude is that it can give rise to the total denial of any Truth in the form of philosophical Relativism. This is not the place to launch into a debate on the pros and cons of Relativism (or Postmodernism) as a systematic viewpoint, but the danger is that if you start to see things as verisimilitudinous, you come to the conclusion that there is no Truth. Or as the Devil put it in Don Henley’s song, The Garden of Allah;
“And I said gentlemen – and I use that world loosely – I will testify for you.
I’m a gun for hire,
I’m a saint, I’m a liar
Because there are no facts, there is no truth
Just data to be manipulated.
I can get you any result you like.
What’s it worth to you?”
Henley’s modern Mephistopheles has a keen grasp on verisimilitude and is happy to use it to maximum advantage. Sadly, this might also be applied to some current attorneys – which is what Don Henley is getting at.
But used with discretion, the word can certainly be used to force someone to think a little more deeply about a supposed truth. We all know people who live in a world of black and white, right and wrong, truth and lies. Yet there are many occasions where the truth of a statement is not obvious and although it may exhibit the trappings of Truth, it is merely wearing a disguise.