The Grammarphobia Blog

Factoid checking

Q: What is your view of the word “factoid”? My dictionary defines it as “someone or something contrived to appear plausible or factual.” However, I hear it used more and more to mean a small fact. In fact, I recently heard it being used that way on NPR. Interesting?

A: When “factoid” first showed up in English in the 1970s, it referred to a dubious assumption presented as fact by the news media.

The first published reference to the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

In the book, Mailer describes factoids as “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 defines this early usage a bit more broadly as “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.”

Oxford doesn’t cite the more recent sense of the word you mention (a small fact), but the two American dictionaries I use the most do include the newer usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists as standard English both the original meaning (“an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print”) and the newer one (“a briefly stated and usu. trivial fact”).

Although The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes both meanings, it labels the newer one a usage problem. A-H says only 43 percent of its Usage Panel accepts the more recent sense of the word.

I suspect, however, that it’s only a matter of time before the Usage Panel comes around. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next edition of American Heritage joins Merriam-Webster’s in accepting both meanings without qualification.

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