Friday, May 6, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

Joe Friday, the TV detective who made investigating 1960s-style psychedelic baby-killing seem as exciting as double-entry bookkeeping, said that early and often in Dragnet. "Just the facts, ma'am." The phrase was suitably terse and more polite than saying "Save your whining or your drama or what you had for lunch, just tell me what happened."

Now I'm wondering what happened to the facts. Sometime soon after Friday turned in his badge a hideous phrase gained currency. I speak of "true facts." It didn't seem to bother many people that such a phrase was laughably redundant. And so it was that soon it wasn't. Because if there are "true facts," then there must also be "false facts."

Somehow, facts became assertions, even though the definition is a model of clarity. A fact is "a thing that is indisputably the case." As John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things." But, unfortunately, that is only true if you know what a fact is.

Concerning the recent demise of Osama bin Laden, a Washington Post story said that despite some dispute about the resale value of the terrorist mastermind 's living quarters, "the underlying facts about bin Laden's lifestyle remained true."

Yep, facts tend to remain true. Indisputably. Stubborn, remember? (Definition: "having or showing dogged determination not to change…")

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