The Difference Between a Fact and a Factoid

EnglrishToday 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”.

English First Language SignHowever, 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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  • Actually the second definition is exactly what I took it’s meaning for at first when I saw the word “factoid”, and so would others, I guess. The first meaning is rather unguessable unless it’s known beforehand. So, it’s perfectly okay (of course!) to use the word “factoid” without a scruple :)

  • Literally Annoyed

    Ugh, from what you are describing this is a case of a word taking on the opposite of its original meaning due to common enough misuse. It is really frustrating to me, as it completely defeats the point of language to give a word two opposite meanings that are not contextually distinguishable. It’s a lot like what is currently happening to “literally.” I wonder how much longer of people using it to mean “figuratively” it will take before dictionaries just decide that it’s an acceptable second definition.

    • Apparently 3 years

    • I personally have never heard a person use literally in place of figuratively, though it frustrates me when people use a word incorrectly and insist it is correct but yes giving a word opposite meanings often causes problems with translation so overall words words should have one or at least very similar definitions or concepts.

      • Well I am living in the future in 2014 and people, primarily but not exclusively white female suburban girls, have adopted the word literally to mean figuratively. Such as “I just drank this pumpkin spice skinny chai latte and it was LITERALLY the best thing I have ever had. I LITERALLY want to just die right now, I can’t even…”. The time of reckoning is upon us. I wish I could go back to your innocent 2013 days of naivete and bliss, but alas, the future is upon is and it is all that we feared. 2013 people, get out while you still can!

    • I believe the tag line/meme “It’s not news, it’s CNN” would be appropriate here. A fact that was not in existence until in the news or in print? Given recent history, they could have unwittingly been using the terms correctly!

    • I see the frustration. I sympathize with this most concerning slang. Made up words that deteriorate any language. Still, the difference between a ‘living’ language vs. a ‘dead’ language (greek, latin, etc.) is that a living language still changes by culture. All words are made up syllabols. Look at J. R. R. Tolkein who made elvish, a linguistic scholar we laud today because of his inginuity. The nature of language is to be added to until the end of a culture and then either a dialect or a whole language may die out (stop changing). Except for holding to the Christian view of God being the originator of some of our old languages (cf. Tower of Babel) we have to accept the evolution of languag (note even the word evolution has changed and I am using the common form of gradual change over time rather than specific gradual increase/betterment over time).

  • When I saw “factoid” I assumed none of it was true. The word’s second meaning rising has made it virtually unusable, as about half the people will think the opposite of what you mean.

  • It would appear then that this is a case of the first definition being used to create the second… since the first says that its something that was believed because of its appearance in print – in this case on Television (CC and BBC) and so they changed the meaning of factoid, by using it as a factoid — man am I now confused ;-).

    • Daven Hiskey

      @so be it: the evolution of words! I find the process fascinating, as you might see from how many “language” articles I have covering various words and how they came to mean what they do today.

  • “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”.”

    That’s funny, here in The Netherlands we have the abbreviation ‘o.i.d.’ which stands for ‘of iets dergelijks’, meaning ‘or something like that’.

  • As Mailer’s renown and skill as a writer and wordsmith is infinitely greater than the author of this blog, 99% of readers are going to take the word “factoid” for what it is, a false fact. Now that the author has wrote this disclaimer, it will be so much less confusing…not! Amazing the lengths people will go to avoid admitting they were wrong!-} What I find interesting tho is that Mailer’s “factoid” has become as dubious a word as the non-facts he was describing.

  • The English language has survived for hundreds of years without your guidance, Billy Black, Literally Annoyed, and Kococum, and will continue to survive long after you are gone. Find something else to waste your energy one, your attempts to chain down language are accomplishing nothing more than insulting the very thing you claim to cherish.

  • I would say that i’m surprised that people on the internet actually made a big deal out of this… but i’m not. I’m just happy when I see people using proper punctuation and spelling. I guess I have low standards, considering that the majority of people online seemingly failed 6th grade English.

  • Billy Black, your comment about 99% of readers is a factoid.

  • @Daven Hiskey

    Just write “bonus trivia,” and save everyone a lot of trouble. It’s easier than trying to justify the use of a stupid, unclear term.


    The English language has survived for hundreds of years without your guidance and will continue to survive long after you are gone. Find something else to waste your energy one (sic), your attempts to chain down language are accomplishing nothing more than insulting the very thing you claim to cherish.

  • I am a Grammar Nazi extraordinaire. I have to be, it’s my job. I edit papers etc. for college and university students. You wouldn’t believe the crap they write. I don’t understand how some of them graduated primary school, much less high school. On the internet it’s even worse, the English language has been bastardized into unintelligible gibberish! In self defense I have had to learn what I have come to term “Chatspeak” or “Textish” just to be able to understand the drivel that I see all the time. Short forms, acronyms and esoteric references abound to the extent that you can write an entire paragraph without resorting to the good old English language.
    R.I.P. English you will be missed by many . . .

    • Mr. Editor, you forgot your comma after “R.I.P. English (insert comma) you will be missed by many . . .” Let me guess you edit papers for the University of Phoenix Online or something of the like?

  • @Rick, Bastardised – you have made your point with the utmost clarity.

  • Second ‘definition’ is bullshit. Having two definitions, one meaning something that’s coroborated and one that isn’t is so much bollocks it’s no wonder English is turning to shit. It’s hard to know what any fucker means because even words don’t make any fucking sense.

    BBC and CNN got it wrong repeatedly. Just like Alanis Morrisette with her false irony. Now everything’s fucking ironic when it isn’t. Eventually if nothing is done to adress it, the word will cease to mean anything.

  • Actually, I believe it was USA Today that first started using Factoid as if it meant “trivial fact”, and CNN and the BBC took their lead from that newspaper.

  • I am from Britain and so know that the media there generally means “factoid” to mean what it was described as by the Tory party – Some small soundbite, that if repeated often enough, will be believed. (Usually assumed to imply that it will be believed, even if it is not true).

    So in that respect, you are using it correctly, as I believe it was the Tories (Conservative) party who introduced the idea in the 1980s. To my way of thinking, they then get the right to define their new word and anyone who uses it with a different meaning, is actually changing the original meaning of the word.

  • Did ANYone notice the picture of the sign which says “excetions”? I’m pretty sure that’s not a word. You people should stop arguing about whether language is what people use to communicate or what they should be using to communicate, and read the actual article!

  • Yep, that’s what happens when a British linguist gets clever and whitty by making satire of a word and its meaning. You get people who don’t get the parody and then commonly use the new word incorrectly. To be honest, Mailer would probably be tickled by this entire response chain.

  • Kamb8, The guy had obviously gone to find the Pee pot and it was not available. Being occupied he gave up and thought only a few would notice.

    Knowing also he was going to struggle for space anyway, he felt he could say to the Mayor ‘ I went for a Pee but could net get one’.

  • Medically speaking, a fact is something that has really occurred or is the case: hence a datum of experience, as distinct from conclusions. Loosely defined, something that is alleged to be, or might be a “fact.” while on the other hand a factoid is a fact that never existed before it appeared in print, but has been reprinted ever since. It is truly launched if it first appears in a reputable medical journal like the Journal of the American Medical Association and republished in the New York Times which gives it international stature. A factoid, using simple Anglo Saxon terminology, is a lie, and like many lies and misconceptions, once it has been published develops a life of its own and is reprinted over and over, from textbook to textbook. The best example is the lie (factoid) that vitamin C causes kidney stones.

  • The way I was taught, a “fact” is something that can be demonstrated to be either true OR false, (kind-of like a noun for intellectuals).
    [fact = the opposite of opinion]
    That many people don’t understand this, is why so many companies emphasize the word “fact” in the commercials; they throw “fact” out there to blind people to the following untruth. (Then when things go wrong, they have an excuse, “Hey, we said it was “a fact” that you could make “up-to” $1000.)
    If “fact” simply meant “true,” we’d only need the word “true” and “truth.”

    • If “fact = the opposite of opinion”, and you are of the opinion that the sky looks blue, then the sky must, (in fact), look yellow?

  • In my opinion, I believe issues involving the proper use of terms can be a very tricky business. For some people, such as myself, precise and carefully constructed diction is extremely important. Many of us struggle with whether it is appropriate or even “moral”, so-to-speak, to employ terms and definitions which, although popular, are etymologically inconsistent or incoherent. For example, the term “humorous” is most often used in modern English to refer to that which is funny, amusing, or otherwise entertaining. However, the etymological root of “humorous” is “of or relating to bodily fluids, specifically the humors,” dating back to ancient and medieval physiology. From an etymologicaly standpoint, when we use the word “humorous,” we are essentially stating that a given action, event, or phenomenon which excites one’s humors to the point of causing a sensation of amusement or entertained jolliness.

    I believe this whole issue between “fact” and “factoid” is a similar case. The author prefers to utilize “factoid” as meaning a trivial tidbit of news or information, despite how this definition is inconsistent with the etymological roots of the term. For an individual like me, I disagree that “factoid” should be used to mean its more popular, albeit etymologically inconsistent, definition. Since the definition of the term as used by the author is more popular, and is clearly his preference, I must accept the fact that he is using “factoid” inconsistent with the etymological roots of the term.

    For those of you who also disapprove of the author’s use of “factoid,” remember that language evolves over time and many of the terms and phrases we use today originate from etymological roots which are rather inconsistent with their modern application. Having said that, it’s ultimately the author’s decision to use the words he chooses in the way he prefers, even if they are not consistent with the etymology of the terms. I don’t see much of anyone ever complaining about the use of the term “humorous,” yet it is arguably just as misused as is the author’s use of “factoid.” Therefore, there isn’t really any reason to complain about this.

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