What’s a “Factoid”?

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Jason Fenchuk on May 28, 2010 11:52 am

I was wondering if you could help clear up the meaning of the word factoid in everyday use? I was interrupted in a meeting after supposedly using the word incorrectly. So after a debate, we looked it up and were both correct. My interpretation followed the 2nd meaning of the definition according to Merriam-Webster and my colleague’s interpretation followed the 1st. But to me, they couldn’t seem to be more polar opposites?

Merriam-Webster gives these two definitions for factoid:

1 : an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print

2 : a briefly stated and usually trivial fact

As often happens with new words that resemble more familiar words, factoid began with one meaning, “an invented fact,” but is now widely used to mean “a trivial, or little-known fact.”

The definitions given in the OED are closer to the original meaning of factoid as defined by Norman Mailer in 1973:

Factoids..that is, 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.

The OED definitions:

factoid: n. Something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact.

adj. Of or having the character of a factoid, quasi-factual; spec. designating writing (esp. journalism) which contains a mixture of fact and supposition or invention presented as accepted fact.

I was surprised the first time I noticed the use of factoid to refer to actual facts: my local community television channel labeled a slide of facts about the vicinity “Factoids.” My reaction was “but that information is true!”

The suffix -oid is used in scientific terminology to form adjectives that have the sense “resembling, allied to,” and nouns with the sense of “something having the form or appearance of, something related or allied in structure, but not identical.” The suffix is from Greek eides, “form, shape.” An android, for example, is a robot that resembles a human being. (Greek andro, “human” + eides.

In ordinary usage, -oid is often added to words in order to make fun of something. A bungaloid, for example, is an ugly, cheaply-built unit of mass housing.

Although both definitions can be found in Webster, 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.”

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5 thoughts on “What’s a “Factoid”?”

  1. I would be cautious on using that word. No one has not heard it maybe and think you are an alien from outer space. sometimes I feel this way: when in doubt leave it outb

  2. My interpretation is that the half-truth of a factoid is more passive than the active deception of truthiness.

    I present a factoid out of journalistic laziness.

    I provide truthiness because I have an agenda that requires you believing me.

    (I am more than happy to be corrected – I only heard the modern usage of truthiness in the last six months… it takes a long time for some aspects of US popular culture to reach down under. We still have “Get Smart” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, for instance…)

  3. I would dare say that the second meaning (and I emphasize “second”) only came into being because too many people did not understand the first meaning and were too lazy to look it up.

    Therefore, the second meaning is in itself a “factoid!”

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