When is a factoid a lie?


Just recently a few of us from work were out to dinner at an Indian restaurant when someone (me probably) mentioned the word “factoid”. The man on my left is full of them. And I think I was re-counting the best factoids he’d ever passed along to me when he said, “you do know that factoids are not mini-facts or trivia, but pieces of mis-information?”

No I did not know that. I’ve been mis-using the word forever. And from the reaction from the rest of the table everyone else had as well. And so it was with pleasure that today I discovered that a renowned linguists also mis-uses it. (Not that I hate to be wrong by myself, but because it’s more interesting when lots of people are wrong all together.) On the subject of this weekend’s blog, I was flicking through one of the most influential books on the subject of what peers and school have to do with the nature-nuture debate (more on that tomorrow), when I stumbled upon the word-crime in question. There it was in the opening few pages of the book within the foreword  written by Steven Pinker. This Harvard Professor in linguistics made the following statement:

A strange factoid in our True-but-Inconvenient file is that children always end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents

And so Pinker, like me and many others, confuses the real meaning of the world. If the file he refers to contains actual truths, then they cannot be factoids.

Yes, factoids are bit of trivia, but the point is that they aren’t true, they are just believed to be true because they’ve been repeated so many times.

Here’s what wiki had to say on the matter

factoid is a questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement presented as a fact, but with no veracity. The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context.[1] The word is defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.[2]

Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”,[3] and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”. The Washington Timesdescribed Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.[4]

Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.

And the fact that so many of us mis-use the word makes it a meme as well! Which I wouldn’t have known had I not checked out memes during last weekend’s blog of confusing terms.

Until tomorrow, when we return to the issue of how school experiences shape our personalities.


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Filed under Random idea, Words

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