The Grammarphobia Blog

How factual is a factoid?

Q: My dictionary says a “factoid” can be a questionable “fact” as well as an actual fact that’s trivial. To me these definitions are almost opposites. Has “factoid” always had two meanings?

A: Like many newish words, “factoid” is a work in progress. When it first showed up in English in the early 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 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.”

It says the word was formed by adding the “-oid” suffix to the noun “fact.” The suffix is derived in part from the Latin -oīdēs and in part from the Greek -οειδής. In classical times, according to the dictionary, it meant “having the form or likeness of, like.”

Oxford says a new sense of “factoid,” used chiefly by journalists, appeared in the early 1980s: “A brief or trivial piece of information, esp. any of a list of such items presented together.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the Book World section in the May 16, 1982, issue of the Washington Post: “A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. We’ve also checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, and all but one include both senses.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has the original meaning (“an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print”) as well as the newer one (“a briefly stated and usually trivial fact”).

Oxford Dictionaries Online (a standard dictionary) lists both meanings, but in reverse order: “A brief or trivial item of news or information” and “An assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”

The new meaning seems to be gaining in popularity over the old one. It’s now accepted by some 64 percent of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), compared to 59 percent who accept the old meaning. In the dictionary’s fourth edition, only 43 percent accepted the new sense, and the new sense wasn’t even included in the third edition.

In fact, one of the references we’ve consulted, the online Cambridge Dictionary, includes only the new meaning (“an interesting piece of information”) and doesn’t describe the information as trivial.

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