Six Shades of True

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Our word true is one of the oldest in the language. It may derive from a Proto-Indo-European word for tree. A well-rooted tree is strong, steadfast and firm. By the time the word entered Old English as triewe, it had acquired the meaning “faithful” or “trustworthy.”

New connotations continued to attach to true. The sense “consistent with fact” dates from about 1200. The meaning “real, genuine, not counterfeit” is from late 14th century. About 1550 it took on the sense of “agreeing with a certain standard,” and by late 1500s it could mean “accurately fitted or shaped.”

In modern usage, true has at least six shades of meaning.

Here are some examples from the web, together with a few synonyms that might convey the intended meaning more precisely.

1. Is it true what they say about the ‘Moto G’?
Meaning: correct, accurate, right, verifiable, well-documented, factual

2. This is why, with true musicianship in mind, I rarely touch the piano in my classroom.
Meaning: genuine, authentic, real, actual

3. An Australian forklift driver who some historians argued was the true heir to the British throne has died in the small New South Wales town he called home.
Meaning: rightful, legitimate, legal, lawful, authorized

4. A true friend…has your very best interests at heart.
Meaning: loyal, faithful, constant, devoted, staunch trustworthy, reliable, dependable

5. The costume historian views the history of clothing as a true reflection of culture…
Meaning: accurate, true to life, faithful, factual, realistic

6. True repentance is always characterized by at least three things…
Meaning: sincere, genuine, real, unfeigned, heartfelt

Then again, true might be exactly the word you want.

Here are some idioms that contain the word true:

true as steel: loyal and dependable
true colors: personality traits often concealed by one’s day-to-day behavior
true love: love that does not alter when it alteration finds
ring true: to sound likely (like the intended tone of a bell that has been cast properly)
tried and true: worthy of trust because of previous dependability
true up: straighten something
true to form: according to pattern or previous behavior
true-blue: totally dependable at all times

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13 thoughts on “Six Shades of True”

  1. I disagree with examples 4 to 6. It is not the word “true”that means what you are stating it does. The word that it is modifying just that takes on that significance when modified by the adjective “true”. “True” just means “genuine” or “authentic” in these examples, just as it did in your example #2. One could just as easily say “true enemy” or “true criminal”, and it certainly wouldn’t mean “reliable” or “dependable”. But it would mean a “genuine” example of those things because it is modified by the word “true”.

  2. In the kind of formal logic that goes all the way back to Aristotle, some statement or some proposition is either true or false, and there is absolutely nothing in between.
    This is also the case for the binary logic of computers.

    One the other hand, in everyday life, such as in engineering, I believe that something can be “approximately true”. I.e., it is true except for a limited number of exceptions. Then after we exclude all of the exceptions, truth is what remains.

    Similarly, something could be “rarely true”, which is the same thing as “usually false”. Then after we exclude all of the exceptions, falsehood is what remains.

    Let T = “true” and F = “false”. In the kind of logic that is used by mathematicians, philosophers (e.g. Aristotle), and computer engineers, there is an operation called the “complement” that reverses the truth status of something. That could be indicated by C( ), where you fill in the blank, like this: C(T) = F and C(F) = T.

    Also, C[C(T)] = T and C[C(F)] = F, so taking the complement twice takes you back to where you started.
    As a practical matter, making mechanical devices and electronic devices that take the complements of their inputs is easy to do, and such things are very useful in more complicated applications.

  3. Several other idioms that contain “true”:
    true blood, true blooded, and true cross.
    For the latter, the Spanish equivalent is “vera cruz”, and that is the source of the names of the state and the city of Veracruz in eastern Mexico.

  4. Aristotle’s formulation of logic involves The Law of the Excluded Middle, and that is something that you can look up in the Internet.
    Actually, a lot of philosphers have argued about this law, back and forth, for centuries going all the way back to ancient times, but mathematicians, computer scientists, and electronics engineers use it all the time – and with great success. Something is either true or it is false, and there is nothing partway in between.

    Then as I mentioned, people can use approximations in real life.

  5. I agree with Chris about examples 4-6, it is not the meaning of true which changes gere, but the word is it modifying.

    However you have omitted another meaning – straight.

    You refer to it obliquely in the phrase true up, although I have not heard this construction.

    In the UK we might say “that window frame is out of true, that’s why the window won’t close properly”. The same usage is found in the phrase “straight and true” as in: “The arrow flew straight and true to hit its mark”

  6. To Helen: The phrase “out of true” and the verb “to true up” are also used in American and Canadian English.

    A window frame or a door and its frame can be “out of true”,
    but something in particular that can be out of true is a tool.
    Tools that can be “out of true” – or out of alignment – include these:
    wrenches, levels, angle irons, screwdrivers, clamps, etc.

  7. To Maeve:
    I agree with all of the others who said that examples four through six do not say anything new that had not already been stated in example two. Why don’t you just admit that you blew it?

    You have a tough readership that includes a lot of widely-read people, plus some scholars, engineers, and mathematicians.
    I tend to look at mistakes and say to myself, “That’s the Unreal McCoy!”

  8. There are two forms of true that divide up this way:
    1. True in deductive logic – the kind that Aristotle created
    2. True in inductive logic

    In deductive logic, what is true is true by definition, and nothing can change that. The complement of true is false, also, and there is nothing in between.

    In inductive logic, something is true as a matter of observation and an accumulation of facts – usually using statistics. Then when contradictory evidence comes up, the statement fails to be true anymore.

    Take the statement “What goes up, must come down.”
    That was absolutely true in human affairs before the year 1959. Then in 1959, the Soviet Union launched a space probe, Lunik 2, that flew from here to crash on the moon. It is stuck there, and it will not come back. Furthermore, since then the United States has launched five space probes that are leaving the Solar System, never to return.

    So, the statement “What goes up, must come down” has several exceptions to it, all launched by the United States, because no other country has sent a space probe farther out than to Mars.
    I’m proud of it: The United States has sent eight space probes out as far as Jupiter, with another one (“Juno”) on the way right now, yet no other country has even attempted to do so.

  9. “Tried-and-true” also refers to products or trainees that have been tested well and that have passed their tests.
    “Tried” refers to the testing that they have undergone, including testing products to failure, and
    “true” refers to either passing the tests, or having failed at stresses beyond their specifications.

  10. I concur with Dale and Helen, in that to my mind, the 4-to-6 “shades” actually do not reflect a difference in meaning.

    The only other I was going to suggest, Helen beat me to the punch: in or out of alignment (as the case may be) – as aptly defined by Dale.

  11. Is “true” an absolute like “unique” is? Can something be “somewhat” true?

    Something can be partially true. Just like something can be partially unique, but only if you break it down into components. So context is what matters. In total, that same thing is either true or not, or unique or not.

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