Last week I looked at how facts are constantly changing. This week I want to look at the fact’s unreliable brother, the factoid. This word, which is basically a synonym for bullshit, was first popularised, if not coined, by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. The controversial author described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” He created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”, as in humanoid, asteroid or haemorrhoid. The Washington Times described Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.
However the word now sometimes also used to mean a small piece of true but trivial information, in contrast to the original definition. This has been popularized by CNN, which, during the 1980s and 1990s, used to frequently include such a fact under the heading “factoid” during news broadcasts. BBC Radio 2 presenter Steve Wright uses factoids extensively on his show. I don’t want to be pedantic, but I agree with William Safire, the New York Times’ language expert who favoured the use of the word factlet for a small or trivial bit of information that happens to be true.
Why are they so ubiquitous? Firstly, they can get past our defences. We often fail to make the effort to check them. They also fulfil a psychological need. They can be more entertaining than reality. Why let the facts get in the way of good story? Ultimately factoids shape our social reality.