News, False and Fake


The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu

“Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Recognize this sentiment? It’s more than three decades old, predating Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004), Google (1996) and the internet (1990s) by a wide margin. But it shows that even in the good old days, there was concern about the validity of news reports, as well as eagerness for them. At least there was that concern by Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), in the Republic of Gilead, a future New England as imagined by a sharp-eyed Canadian, Margaret Atwood.

Nowadays, Google tells us, we remain concerned about “false news” (half a million hits on Google this past Monday). But we’re 64 times as likely to call it “fake news” (32 million hits). We’ve become more slangy and cynical.

A look at Google Ngrams shows that in former times, “false news” was prevalent from the 17th century, while “fake news” scarcely existed at all until the start of the 20th. Even at the end of the 20th, “false” was the preferred adjective — seeming more solemn and thoughtful, perhaps. But there’s no question that the choice is “fake” now.

And the change is drastic. The 400-million-word Corpus of Historical American English, for example, has a grand total of only four instances of “fake news,” the earliest from 1987. “False news,” on the other hand, has 31 examples in CHAE. They go back as far as 1827 to a historical novel by Samuel B. H. Judah, The Buccaneers: “‘I fear me this man hath brought us no false news,’ quoth another, rushing in with terror depicted on his pallid countenance.”

C.L. Sulzberger was an early adopter of “fake news” for his 1987 book, Fathers and Children, telling of the 1825 election: “The results of electoral vote-counting were delayed, although Andrew Jackson clearly had more votes than Adams. Jackson supporters planted a fake news story in the press saying that Henry Clay, whose backing was crucial, would throw his influence behind any candidate who would agree to make him secretary of state.”

aesopFake or false, we seem preoccupied with it now. Courtesy of Google Books, here’s a comment from Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists (1692):

There is no Peace to be expected, either in a Government, or in a Family, where Tale-bearers, and the Spreaders of Ill or of False News, are Encourag’d. Now the Curiosity of Heark’ning after Privacies that do not concern us, and of Prying into Forbidden Secrets, does not arise so much from a desire of knowing the Truth of Things simply for our own Satisfaction, as from an Itch of Screwing our selves into other Peoples Matters, that we may be Prating of them again. And then the Tale is very seldom or never without Calumny and Detraction at the End on’t.

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