Don’t Misrepresent Facts With ‘Factoids’

Magnifying glass over the word FACTS.Word meanings and their usage evolve and change. However, here’s one that I’ve been keeping my eye on for years: factoid.

I first heard the word in graduate school, assuming it meant a tiny fact. But I was wrong.

New York Times columnist Gale Collins let loose with factoid in her Jan. 2, 2015, column. She wrote:

When Hillary Clinton thinks about running for president, do you think she contemplates the fact that no Democrat has been elected to succeed another Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856? We bring you this factoid in honor of the beginning of the 2016 election season.

Gail obviously chose factoid to convey an accepted historical fact. Here is some history on the derivation of factoid:

The term was coined by American writer Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. He described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” He created the word by combining fact with oid, meaning 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.” Bottom line: a factoid is something that appears it might be a factual but is not accurate or verified.

Other sources define factoid this way:

– misinformaiton purporting to be factual or a phony statistic
– seeming to be though not necessarily factual
– a piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition.

Here’s the problem: Some sources define factoid as a little-known bit of true information; trivial but interesting data; a brief, somewhat interesting fact.

Something either is a fact or it is not a fact. A word with two opposite, contradictory meanings at the least misleads readers, and at the worst misinforms readers. I intend to maintain my reputation as a ruthless editor and stick to the original meaning of factoid as Mailer crafted it, and I wish longstanding New York Times columnist Gail Collins would do the same.



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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)