Make sure you have your 'factoids' straight

May 28, 2017

Unless you've managed to avoid all forms of media this year, you're probably well aware of the ongoing debate over what constitutes a fact.

Frankly, we have no desire to open up that powder keg. However, we thought this would be a good time to talk about "factoids."

If someone were to ask you for an example of a factoid, what would you say? Many of us would probably start rattling off parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy or pull up a Buzzfeed list or some other collection of random, interesting facts.

Here's an interesting factoid. The word "factoid" used to mean something else.

To understand the original meaning, it's helpful to think about asteroids. 

The suffix "oid" is Greek and means "having the form of" or "resembling." When you tack that on to the end of the Greek word for star you get asteroid -- something that is star-like but not a star.  So, when you put "oid" on the end of "fact," you have something that is fact-like but not a fact.

But how can something be fact-like without actually being a fact ? To answer that, we'll avoid all references to current events and instead look to Norman Mailer.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Mailer's 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe as the first usage of factoid. Mailer coined the term as an assumption or a speculation that's been repeated so often, it's accepted as fact:

"Factoids ... that is, facts that have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies, but a creation to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority."

It didn't take long for the meaning to shift. By the 1980s, the Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of factoid being used to refer to a trivial fact.

Several decades later, we're living in a world where it's not unusual to see something like "756 factoids about the final season of Matlock" sitting at the top of your Facebook feed. Good news for Matlock fans, bad news for fans of the original meaning of factoid.

Do you have questions about language and grammar? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.