Factoid and Tabloid

By Maeve Maddox

My use of the word factoid in the sense of “a little fact” in a recent post earned me considerable disapproval from my readers. Here are just two examples:

Really, Maeve, “FACTOID?!?” So you mean to say you are lying to us? You mean to say those are not facts, but, like asteroids or humanoids, merely things that have the APPEARANCE of them?

 …it’s like seeing Superman jaywalk. I wanted to cry ‘Say it ain’t so, Maeve!’

I apologized in the comments for using factoid in this way. I did not try to justify my use by referring to this secondary definition in Merriam-Webster: “a briefly stated and usually trivial fact.”

As has been stated numerous times on this site, by both writers and readers, “But, it’s in the Dictionary!” is no justification for using a word irresponsibly.

Writer Norman Mailer coined the term factoid by adding the suffix -oid to fact.

The suffix -oid is used chiefly in science to form nouns meaning “something having the form or appearance of; something related or allied in structure, but not identical.”

A factoid, therefore, resembles a fact but is not to be relied upon as being completely factual.

Bottom line, speakers who care about maintaining useful distinctions will agree with the astute blogger who wrote this in 2010:

It seems to me to be the waste of a good word to use factoid with the sense of “brief factual item” when it provides such a useful word for the half-truths and opinions that pass for “facts” in much of the media. We already have the word trivia for “a trivial, or little-known fact.”

Actually, that’s probably not the bottom line. Defend the “true” meaning of factoid as we might, the word’s meaning has begun to evolve.

Some words, despite efforts to make them mean only one thing, take on a life of their own–even in the speech of those who initially resist the change. The more one hears a word used with new meanings, the easier it is to forget the meaning it started with. The word tabloid is a case in point.

Like factoid, the word tabloid is a coinage. It was trademarked in 1884 as a brand name for a small, flat, compressed piece of a medicinal substance: a medicine tablet.

In 1903, the manufacturers brought suit against druggists who were calling their own tablets “tabloids.” The company not only lost their suit, the defendants succeeded in reversing the word’s trademark status. Here’s the ruling:

The word Tabloid has become so well-known…in consequence of the use of it by the Plaintiff firm in connection with their compressed drugs that I think it has acquired a secondary sense in which it has been used and may legitimately be used so long as it does not interfere with their trade rights. I think the word has been so applied generally with reference to the notion of a compressed form or dose of anything.

After the court decision, tabloid lost its capital T and was used generically to mean anything that provided a lot of value in a small package:

The small speedy Sopwith biplane has been nicknamed the ‘Tabloid’ because it contains so many good qualities in such small compass. –Aeroplane, 1913.

When gossipy newspapers with pages half the size of standard newspapers came into vogue, they were called tabloids.

Because the content of tabloid newspapers is deliberately scandalous and irreverent, the word has given birth to tabloid as an adjective meaning sensationalistic, and tabloidy, meaning trashy.

Not only is factoid now in wide use with the meaning “a minor fact,” it has taken on a new meaning in the realm of industrial trade shows. I found a reference to “product factoids” on a Cardiovascular Research Foundation site:

A product factoid is a PowerPoint presentation of product and/or treatment specs. These could include product size, product profile, and approval status. CRF has designed PowerPoint templates specific to each product or treatment category.

Here’s a link to the article by the astute blogger quoted above: “What’s a Factoid?”

As regards my own lapse,

The only thing faster than the speed of thought is the speed of forgetfulness. Good thing we have other people to help us remember.” –Vera Nazarian.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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10 Responses to “Factoid and Tabloid”

  • Rich Wheeler

    I wonder why the pharmaceutical company decided to use -oid when tablet had already been around for centuries.

    From what I read online, the new manufacturing process allowed pharmacists to make pills from dry materials, whereas pills previously required kneading moist ingredients, and the moisture would ruin certain ingredients.

    I would speculate that the tabloid resulted from the manufacturer’s desire to tout a “new and improved” process while introducing the new drugs they could deliver in tablet form. They reasoned, these pills are “like tablets,” and therefore called them tabloids. Apparently, abuse of English for advertising purposes did not begin recently.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Saying, “[W]e already have the word trivia for ‘trivial, or little-known fact,'” the blogger of 2010 didn’t quite process the proposed alternate.

    Trivia is a plural or collective noun. The singular would be trivium. However, since we have followed a rule requiring resistance to changing meanings, we must recognize that trivium has an existing meaning very different from “an isolated, simply stated fact.” From several sources:

    trivium – an introductory curriculum at a medieval university involving grammar, logic, and rhetoric; considered the tri via (triple way) to eloquence

    Unlike factoid, trivium has no secondary meaning listed in the dictionaries I visited.

    New words come about when people cannot think of the right word. New words and new meanings for existing words also come about when meaning needs to be expressed. I understand resisting in the former case, but not in the latter.

  • ApK

    Thanks for the article on one of my pet peeves!

    Rich, I don’t even object out of hand to your first stated source of new words.
    But I have a particular problem when the ‘new word’ they choose is just another old world that means something totally different, that the person neither knew nor bothered to look up before they decided to ursurp it!
    We may be stuck with this new meaning for ‘factoid,’ damaging, as the article mentions, a really excellent, powerful word, but I don’t have to be a part of it!

  • Elysia Brenner

    I had no idea about this connotation, tbh – I always just read the word as “a fun little fact” – so thanks for setting me straight!

  • venqax

    I agree that coining a new word when one is needed to express and new thing is fine. I don’t agree with misusing current words to mean things they don’t out of laziness in locating the word that already exists for that meaning, or creating a “new” meaning for an existing word when a brand-new one is justified. Multiple meanings for words just creates confusion that causes more of the same problems.

    IMO, tabloid as explained above really does not meet the requirements. As simply another type of tablet — that’s what adjectives are for. And as far as the modern meaning, if “scandal sheet” was used earlier for such things, then no new word was needed. Especially one that has absolutely nothing to do with what it’s being used for– What is the -oid being added to? Something resembling a tablet? Just meaning “something small” isn’t enough. Paperoid or newsoid would make more sense. Factoid, OTOH, seems a good word for what the “astute blogger” offers. Of course we already have the word lie. But political factoids are sometimes a little different not so much untrue as misleading.

  • Roberta B.

    Gimmicky words always have been a part of advertising. I’m at a loss for the moment, but know there are generated words for certain products that actually mean something else. I was completely unaware of the original use of the word tabloid. However, I’m still with ApK on the use of factoid.

  • Maeve

    I just heard about the word “fractoid.” You won’t find it in the OED or M-W, but here’s the definition from the Urban Dictionary:

    fractoid: A person that utilizes at most a microscopic portion of their brain when addressing issues, far less than even the average human being; this condition is pre-dominant in recent college graduates as well as Congress

  • venqax

    Sometimes the gimmicky words kind of backfire. I always wondered about the Plymouth Reliant. What was it reliant on? Lucky for Chrysler, the car-buying public isn’t particularly literate. Car makers and drug companies are notorious for creating names that mean nothing, but sometimes sound like they do (Abilify, Aleve, Impreza, Altima, Acura– and that’s just the As). But I guess something like Prius markets better that Caroid. (Yes, Prius does technically mean something. In a Latin conjugations. So, come on…)

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    When I was shopping for a small car, I wouldn’t look at a Yaris because the name sounds so ugly to me.

  • AnWulf

    I don’t think you hav anything to apologize for as the meaning of the word factoid is what it is … not what a purist wants to believ it is. From the New Oxford Amer. Dict.:

    factoid |ˈfakˌtoid|
    noun
    a brief or trivial item of news or information.

    Etym: coined by Norman Mailer in Marilyn (1973): “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”.

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