Today I found out the difference between a fact and a factoid. I have gotten several helpful commenters pointing out recently that perhaps I am using the word “factoid” incorrectly in my articles here, thinking that it means the same as “fact”. In fact (eh? eh?) , I am not. But since this is a common area of confusion, indeed English language usage guides typically recommend against using the word “factoid” because of the confusion surrounding it, I have decided to do an article on it.
Due to the confusion surrounding this word, I can absolutely see where they are coming from as “Factoid” has two somewhat distinct definitions, one being more or less a subset of “Fact”, the other not meaning the same thing at all as “Fact”. Despite the general recommendation against its use by English guides, I still like to use it because it is the only single word that means exactly what I’m trying to say in my “Bonus Factoid” section at the end of some articles.
“Fact” obviously means something that is unquestionably true, or as Webster more eloquently puts it, it is the “quality of being actual”.
“Factoid” however means something slightly different. The first definition, for which it would seem I’m incorrect in my usage, is the following: “an invented fact, believed to be true because of its appearance in print”
This was the original definition coined in 1973 by Norman Mailer. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”. He came up with the word, adding the suffix “oid” as an “oid” ending implies “similar but not the same” or more succinctly “like” or “resembling”.
However, thanks in large part to CNN and the BBC in the 1980s/1990s to today including “factoids” in their news casts referring to trivial bits of factual information, there is now a second “official” definition of “factoid” as follows (from Merriam-Webster): “a briefly stated and usually trivial fact”
And it is of course this definition to which I am using this word at the end of some of my articles when I have “Bonus Factoids“, bulleted short trivial facts.
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