the second edition of a newsletter about things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know, inspired (mostly) by people being wrong on the internet. written by Jacqui Shine.
(Honestly could have used any old tweet for this. Sorry (not sorry?) to this guy.)
Well, actually, “factoid” does not mean “piece of trivia”—and the fact (sorry) that we’ve adopted this usage is deeply ironic. “Factoid” actually means “invented fact,” some piece of (mis)information that is repeated so often in print (or, generally, by the media) that it becomes accepted as truth. Today, so many people use the term to mean “a piece of trivia” that the word has actually become an example of the problem it describes: this incorrect usage has repeated so often that it has superseded the established meaning. (Do I need to explain the danger of factoiding factoid in 2020 USA America?)
The suffix -oid means "resembles”—it’s a thing that is similar, but not identical to, whatever the original word describes. (It’s very common in zoology and mathematics.) Add it to a noun or adjective and you've got your meaning. Heroin, an opioid, is like opium. A factoid, then, is like a fact.
Factoid is a neologism coined by the writer Norman Mailer in 1973. He introduces the term in his book Marilyn (as in Monroe), where he describes another writer’s biography of the actress as having "fewer facts than factoids ... that is, 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.” Yes, that’s right: a factoid is a piece of information willed into existence by circulation in the media. (The previous year, Mailer had written in his book St. George and the Godfather that "Media was beginning to make history as well as report it.")
The New York Times Grunge Speak hoax is a good example of how factoids are made, though, in this case, the process was interrupted before the misinformation hardened into facts. In 1992, asked about the slang of the Seattle grunge scene, a Sub Pop Records staffer invented a set of terms that ran under the headline "Lexicon of Grunge." A British magazine credulously reprinted the list. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Frank wrote in The Baffler that it had been a prank, and humiliation, rather than the broad adoption of “lamestain,” ensued.
If you encounter trivia that delights you, just call it that. (Digression: Trivia means "something of little consequence,” either objects or pieces of information, and came into use around 1902. By the 1940s, trivia game had emerged to describe the pastime of swapping and/or guessing small facts.) (Grammarians: We seem to use trivia as a plural form and “piece of trivia” or the like to describe a single fact. The term’s Latin singular is trivium.)
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