‘Factoid’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

If you use the word “factoid” to describe a single bit of important information or “factoids” to talk about several pieces of such data, we will get complaints.

Here’s why:

Norman Mailer gets the credit for coming up with the word “factoid,” which he used in a 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Merriam-Webster notes that Mailer called them “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

Mailer seems to have chosen the suffix “oid” because it forms “resembling” nouns. Think of it this way: A “humanoid” resembles a human — but isn’t human. A “factoid,” then, resembles a fact — but isn’t one, according to Mailer’s definition. Judging from our email traffic, plenty of people agree with him.

Now, English is a living language. Meanings do change. In 1993, William Safire worried that the word would come to mean “a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data.”

Safire was right. Webster’s New World dictionary defines the word as “a single fact or statistic variously regarded as being trivial, useless, unsubstantiated, etc.”

The Grammarist blog points out that that in the U.S., at least, “‘factoid’ is now almost exclusively used to mean ‘a brief interesting fact.’ … This definition is still considered incorrect by people who follow English usage, but it’s so widespread those who dislike it may eventually have to accept it, even if it does contradict the word’s original sense.”

Where does this leave us? If you want to be cheered rather than jeered for your attention to language, save “factoid” for those occasions when the subject is something that resembles a fact, but isn’t one. Or for things that are “trivial, useless [and] unsubstantiated.” For everything else, the simple word “fact” is accurate and you can save yourself a syllable.

As for words such as “literally,” “founder” and “reticent,” there are many online lists of those we all misuse. Here’s a Huffington Post version with 50 entries.

Our own list is here.

(“Memmos;” April 25, 2016)

April 25, 2016

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