“Fake news” is so ubiquitous now, it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, we barely ever used the term.
According to Google Trends, it blew up in November, the month of the 2016 election. Initially, it described the sort of hoax articles published by shady content farms that cynically exploited readers’ existing biases to get clicks from bald-faced lies about Hillary Clinton storing fraudulent ballots in warehouses.
Tall tales presented as factual news stories existed prior to the 2016 election. In fact, though many have referred to “fake news” as a term coined in recent months, the compound noun isn’t exactly new either. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “fake news” stretches back over 100 years. On Friday, the dictionary’s blog published a history of “fake news,” and the truth may surprise you.
Though the common usage of “fake news” is new, Merriam-Webster points out, “Fake news appears to have begun seeing general use at the end of the 19th century.” The post cites several news articles from the 1890s, including an 1891 piece in The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY) that optimistically declared, “The public taste [...] certainly has no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’ and ‘special fiend’ decoctions such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago.”
My, how things can change!
“Fake news” is such a simple construction ― information reported in a news outlet that is bogus ― that Merriam-Webster sees no need to even consider it for entry in the dictionary as a separate term. It’s utterly self-explanatory and straightforward.
So why didn’t it exist before? Well, Merriam-Webster has the answer to that, too: “the word fake is also fairly young. Fake was little used as an adjective prior to the late 18th century.” Prior to the late 19th century, English speakers used an obvious alternative to refer to what we now call fake news: “false news.”
When you get down to it, the history of “fake news” is actually pretty intuitive; as long as there’s been fake news, there’s been a simple way to describe it. And while it wasn’t always a favorite subject of American presidents and news media, bogus news has been around for centuries. The only thing that seems to have changed is our “genuine appetite” for it.