Factoid and Tabloid
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.
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