Last year in April, Rita Bay’s Blog theme was the Origins of the English Language. Over the last year, readers visited those posts often. This month we’re revisiting language, how people handle information, their beliefs and disbeliefs, and what is true and what is false.
This week, we’re looking at facts vs factoids. A factoid is a questionable or spurious (unverified, false, or fabricated) statement presented as a fact, but is false. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines a factoid as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.
Norman Mailer coined the term in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”, and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending “-oid”to mean “similar but not the same”. The Washington Times described Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact.” Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.
CNN used the word factoid to mean a small piece of true but valueless or insignificant information, in contrast to the original definition. As a result of confusion over the meaning of factoid, some English-language style and usage guides recommend against its use. Language expert William Safire advocated the use of the word factlet to express a “little bit of arcana.” The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context. This month, readers will get their fill of facts, factoids, factlets, misconceptions, urban legends, and a few surprises. Tomorrow, A Fact & Factoid Game Rita Bay