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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

factoid

(early 1990’s | “tidbit,” “fun fact”)

The internet confidently attributes the invention of this word to Norman Mailer in 1973, and I can find no evidence whatsoever that it is wrong (an unusual circumstance). How refreshing to have a word with a single, easily verified origin that is not an eponym.

Mailer defined “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.” When the word was used in the 1970’s, it invariably connoted falsehood. A factoid was untrue, and often deliberately deceptive. The important thing about a factoid was it was not a fact — just as a spheroid is not a sphere — but could be mistaken for one. It is dressed up to look like a fact, and in fact to have any life has to resemble one fairly closely, but it just ain’t so. In this sense it recalls propaganda or the big lie (though not spread by the government), something that becomes accepted through repetition in prominent places. A factoid is a little like an urban legend, although it need not spread so quickly and widely. It also resembles Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness,” which feels like the truth but isn’t.

Before I go on, I need to say, “Well hush my mouth,” because the commentary above has little to do with my notion of what a factoid is — “minifact” or “interesting bit of trivia” — even though I admit Mailer’s meaning makes much more etymological sense. (William Safire proposed “factlet” for this sort of thing; I prefer “factette.”) The point of the word changed fundamentally (although it still came with a sneer); a factoid was no longer something false, it was true but unimportant. This shift seems to have started in the mid-1980’s and was largely complete by the end of the decade, or so LexisNexis has it. The turnabout in meaning coincided with increased use; the number of search results on LexisNexis goes up or stays steady year after year from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s. By 2001, it had made the Banished Word List compiled by Lake Superior State University.

Three on-line dictionaries record the two contradictory meanings without addressing or even noticing the contradiction. I’ve been trying to figure out how the later meaning arose and took over with so little fanfare. Oh, some did notice; William Safire bemoaned the change, which he blamed on CNN, in 1993. (Wikipedia also blames CNN.) Another villain is USA Today; I found a couple of examples in the late 1980’s of journalists talking about that publication’s liberal use of factoids. Was it mere sloppiness — a few reporters simply misusing the term until it caught on? Or was it more insidious: the lowered journalistic standards of the new news giants manifesting themselves as lowered linguistic standards? Maybe it was a different kind of pressure on the language. Trivia became a much bigger part of our daily diet in the eighties, and there was no word for a single piece of it. Our need was so great we grabbed the first vaguely related word that came along, however inapposite. I don’t know. I can determine, to my satisfaction at least, when and even perhaps why the revolution occurred, but not how.

A very fine recent article, which I did not discover until the draft of this post was nearly finished, says most of what I have to say in more satisfying detail. It seems the people are awaking from their slumber and demanding an answer to the great “factoid” riddle. Let the times bring forth the lexicographer!

Update: April 12, 2013: It occurred to me that the word “opioid,” which ought to mean “synthetic opiate,” has in fact simply replaced “opiate.” Painkillers with morphine, codeine, etc. are commonly referred to as “opioids” now. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone to use the word that way forty years ago.

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