Our One Long 'Moment of Truth'

A phrase taken from Spanish bullfighting is getting a workout this week

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The cliché This morning, Yahoo! Finance columnist Daniel Gross tweeted: "I read in NYT that observers regard euro debt talks as 'moment of truth.' By my count, this is the 643rd moment of truth since 2008." Gross is onto something: It seems that people making news this week are facing a lot of pressure. Name a popular story, and there's a moment of truth to define it. Gross already pointed out that the European debt talks face one. Here are some others.

  • News Corp.: Smart Company predicted the testimony of James and Rupert Murdoch in Parliament would be "a moment of truth."
  • Debt limit: The Christian Science Monitor declared John Boehner's decision of whether to compromise with Democrats on debt is his "moment of truth." Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Zandi agrees: "Moment of truth is at hand: Raise the debt ceiling limit" reads the headline to his column. 
  • Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal: It's "Cambodia's Moment of Truth," declares Foreign Policy.
  • Lady Gaga:  Okay, it isn't news, but pop radio is full of her singing, "I'm on the edge of glory and I'm hanging on a moment of truth."

Where it's from The phrase derives from the Spanish, "el momento de la verdad," a bullfighting term for the point when the fighter finally kills the bull. Dictionaries trace the first English usage to that most famous of bullfighting aficionados, Ernest Hemingway and his 1932 work of non-fiction Death in the Afternoon. With that in mind, one suddenly sees how modern usage of the phrase only occasionally does service to the original meaning. When Sean Hannity calls the debt ceiling debate a "moment of truth," he is following the Hemingway tradition, since he is seemingly implying that this is the moment when the Republicans finish off President Obama. But when The Independent calls the Murdochs' parliament hearing a "moment of truth," they seem to mean "a point in time at which someone will say something factual." That adheres to the semantics of the words in the phrase, but not so much the Hemingway spirit.

Why it caught on Actually, we wouldn't say this particular news cycle is precisely when "moment of truth" caught on.  Gross claims, after all, that there have been at least 643 "moments of truth" since 2008. And this graph shows that Google searches for the phrase have happened steadily since Google started tracking data (with a spike around the time a game show titled The Moment of Truth premiered on Fox.)

Really, though, why? We will say that we're not surprised to have noticed the phrase in headlines practically ad naseum this week in particular. It does, after all, seem to be a worldwide week of reckoning in many ways. Between threats of economic meltdown, the teetering of a massive media empire, and this (we kid), one cannot blame the media for likening the world to a bull on its death bed.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.