Etymology Usage

Facts and damn facts

Q: With some regularity, I catch people rejecting something by making the ridiculous statement “I don’t accept the fact that….” If it ain’t a fact, don’t call it one.

A: We agree with you that it doesn’t make much sense to say, “I don’t accept the fact that…” in such cases. If you acknowledge something to be a fact, then you’ve accepted it as the truth.

But language isn’t mathematics, and words are sometimes used less than literally. They also change over time.

The phrase “the fact that” has been around since the early 19th century, and it’s often used to mean “the circumstance that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact (if you’ll pardon the expression), the OED’s earliest published reference for “the fact that” uses the phrase in just the way you object to.

Here’s the citation, from a diary entry in Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh (1803): “I would not agree to the fact that ennui prevailed more in England than in France.”

Although the usage has a history (more on this later), we find it a bit sloppy, especially in writing. We’d say we didn’t agree that such-and-such WAS a fact.

But on to the word “fact,” which once had a meaning somewhat different from today’s.

It comes from the Latin factum (“thing done”), a past participle of the verb facere (“do”).

This explains why the word meant simply an action, a deed, or a “feat” (another word from the Latin factum) when it entered English in the mid-1500s.

“Fact” retained some of its original flavor for centuries. In the early 1800s, people were still using the phrase “caught in the fact” the way we now use “caught in the act.”

And when Jane Austen, in her novel Emma (1815), described the people of Enscombe as “gracious in fact if not in word,” she was contrasting words with deeds.

Like most words, “fact” has gone through some changes in its lifetime.

In modern English, a “fact,” according to the OED, is “something that has really occurred or is actually the case … hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction.”

This meaning was first recorded in 1632 in James Hayward’s translation of Eromena, a novel by Giovanni Francesco Biondi: “They resolved that the Admirall should goe disguised … to assure himselfe of the fact.”

Here’s a later use, in Tobias Smollett’s 1749 translation of Alain René Le Sage’s novel Gil Blas: “Facts are stubborn things.”

We can’t argue with that.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had your fill of facts, you might  be interested in a blog item we wrote last year about the word “factoid.”

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