Is there truth in whispers?

“Rumor” is a word to use with caution, especially in headlines. Deep in this Politico piece about this recent Washington Post story about Barack Obama, the definition of the word becomes an issue. The Post story uses the word several times, as does the headline: “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.”

“Rumor” means different things to different people, and that means trouble. In France, journalists speak of “true rumors” and “false rumors.” Is a rumor necessarily false? Or can a rumor be either true or false? The editor on the Post story puts it this way:

Saying something is a rumor is not saying it’s true. … We didn’t say it was a false rumor. To me, a rumor is not true.

Dictionaries indicate otherwise. Here is how Webster’s New World College Dictionary describes the word:

  • General talk not based on definite knowledge; mere gossip; hearsay.
  • An unconfirmed report, story or statement in general circulation.

Indeed, some rumors turn out to be true, and others don’t. To see this in action, watch the firings and hirings that follow the end of a football season.

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo chimes in on the use of “rumors” in the Post story.