>"factoid"

>I would really like to get some agreement on this word or for people to give up using it altogether. I most recently ran across it this morning while reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of some new Hillary Clinton biographies in The New Yorker:

Sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers alike tend to tell Clinton’s more recent history as a sequence of spectacular humiliations—first Gennifer, then health care, then Monica—followed by even more spectacular recoveries: an office in the West Wing, a seat in the United States Senate, a shot at the Presidency. Along the way, they offer some never before disclosed documents or factoids.

One of my first task with new editors or reviewers is to educate them in Horn Book usage of factoid, which we take to mean, following Norman Mailer’s coinage of the term in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, something that looks and sounds like a fact but isn’t. Our Guide reviewers particularly, faced with the mountain of nonfiction series books that splash random data about their subjects around usually hectic double-page spreads, want to use it to mean “small fact,” a usage we immediately spank out of them. I can appreciate words with multiple meanings, but not when they can be used to mean two contradictory things: are these Hillary Clinton books giving us trivia or telling us lies?

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    >Roger, I thought it meant sort of kind of a fact, like a fact but not really, and very trivial. Not small, almost non-existent.

    In a different but related context, I am regularly amazed at the mean-spiritedness pretty much every reviewer I have read used to approach the new Hillary biographies.

    Yeah, I like her. A lot.

  2. Andy Laties says:

    >While I acknowledge that “factoid” means a “false fact” and a small fact should be called a “factette” — unless I’m mistaken contemporary lexicography rejects prescriptive definitions and endorses a descriptive approach. Thus, if enough people use the word “factoid” mean “a small fact” then this usage is acceptable.

    I noted a few months ago that you, Roger, used the word “hopefully” in a manner oft condemned by grammar police. Glass-house-dwellers beware….

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >Sure, Andy, but with “hopefully” you know what the writer means. With “factoid” you don’t. I don’t think the use of it to mean “small fact” is so widespread that one can use it without fear of being misinterpreted.

  4. >I’m embarrassed that I’ve till now only known the second definition of factoid, as a true but trivial bit of news. Somehow I associate it with USA Today — this even though I don’t think I’ve read USA Today more than five times in my life. The other definition is more interesting and also lets you be someone who reads Norman Mailer rather than USA Today. I’m making the switch.

  5. rindawriter says:

    >Factoid sounds, to me like something a wordoid automatically generated because some nerdoid got a software glitchoid inside of it…

    Oooooh…jargon just gives me the creepie-jeepies!

  6. Andy Laties says:

    >Ok so this is a fascinating test case! I don’t know what Merriam-Webster makes of it, but I betcha that the majority of Americans, if asked to define “factoid”, would say, “an obscure bit of trivial but intriguing information” — in other words, that Norman Mailer’s original definition in fact has already lost out, in terms of popular usage.

    In fact, I believe that there is a whole class of words which now have meanings exactly opposite to those they originally had. It’s not too unusual, really!

    How about the phrase, “You could have fooled me!”

    Now — if you really want Mailer’s original definition to win the usage battle, you’d better start a viral email campaign on the subject.

  7. Uma Krishnaswami says:

    >I think Andy’s right and “factoid” has come to parallel “humanoid” (something less than a human but like it in some ways) in its journey through the language.

  8. >Obviously the solution with your Guide reviewers is to coin your own word that means small fact and encourage its use–factette? And then “factoid” can revert to its original meaning and you and Norman Mailer both win.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >Perhaps factoid can become one of the small group of contranyms (also called auto-antonyms and Janus words) that mean both one thing and its opposite. Cleave, table, fast, and sanction are good examples of this type of word. Factoid could mean both a small fact and an unverified fact.

  10. Andy Laties says:

    >Contranym! That’s what I meant. But I never knew there is a technical term for it (and evidently neither does the Spellcheck program).

  11. Andy Laties says:

    >Contronym is the correct spelling evidently (and Spellcheck STILL doesn’t know that).

  12. Disco Mermaids says:

    >I always thought of “factoids” as interesting tidbits of useless information. My definition stems from my subscription to the magazine 3-2-1 Contact as a child. Each issue had a two-page spread (if I remember correctly) called “Factoids” with cartoonishly-illustrated fun facts.

    And I just can’t shake that definition…just like I can’t get rid of that heavy box of magazines in my attic.

    - Jay

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >I’m becoming of the opinion that “factoid” just needs to be retired. Even those who don’t read it as a non-fact seem divided on whether it means a briefly-put fact or a trivial fact or a random fact–three very different meanings. I think it’s beloved by Horn Book Guide reviewers because of the way such facts as, oh, “cod-canning is a major industry of Portugal” (I have no idea if that is true, btw) are scattered about the pages of series geography books in a way that makes them look like small planets orbiting the main text.

  14. Andy Laties says:

    >It’s your party.

  15. Walter Underwood says:

    >My dictionary (Oxford American) has yet another choice for the meaning of “factoid”: “an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it is becomes accepted as fact.” Hmm.

    Perhaps your reviewers should try using the word “trivia”, since “factoid” doesn’t seem to be converging on a single meaning.

    As for “hopefully”, the real grammarians have a different view than the Grammar Police. Compare it to how “frankly” and “surprisingly” are used.

  16. Andy Laties says:

    >Walter:
    Fabulous citation! The concept that Grammar Police can find their comprehension of the language diminished through obsession with “correct” usage is hilarious! It reminds me (self-critically speaking) of myself standing at the cash register of my bookstore on Navy Pier in Chicago. I had an enormous number of customers from every conceivable walk of life and background. I used to “serve” groups of teenagers out roaming the shops (usually looking to steal: four kids would stand in front of the counter engaging me in aggressive conversation, four other kids would rapidly move through the store picking up and putting down products, and then all eight kids would suddenly leave the store together, with me stuck trying to figure out what had happened).

    Well, the kids who were engaged in distracting me used to utilize a grammar attack that was particularly frustrating. It was an Ebonics Lesson. A girl picks up some little impulse item — a Mood Ring, and says, “How much this?” I say, “Two-fifty.” Her friend leans forward at me and yells, in outrage, “WHO??” I understand her of course to be using the word “who?” as an Ebonics stand-in for “what?” and I say, “Two-fifty.” The original girl says to her friend, “I’m not payin’ you two-fifty for THIS?” She throws it down and picks up a copy of the book “Free Stuff For Kids” and says, “How much this?” I say, “Six ninety-five.” Her friends says, in an angry voice, “WHO??”…

    Of course my rising frustration is related both to the fact that I can see these girls’ accomplices off roaming around the store picking up and throwing down lots of different products and yet these girls themselves have got me pinned at the cash register — but, ALSO, because I can NOT get over my Grammar Police instincts regarding this novel use of the word “Who?” to mean “What?”

    It gave them such pleasure to deploy “Who?” in this manner. It made me so annoyed. Why did I always bridle? Why did I want to tell them that they were using the word “Who?” incorrectly?? This was an absurd emotion to be feeling at such an instant!

    And yet, after the group of teens rush out of the store, abandoning me at my cash register — I do have to say that I would often rehearse this new meaning of “Who?” as if I were learning a new language. Proud of myself for not actually coming out with a censorious correction of their “misuse”.

    I wonder if the dictionaries have caught up with this use of the word “Who?” yet.

  17. Anonymous says:

    >Why does the (shudder) George W. Bush phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” come to mind when I read how proud you were for not correcting those girls? It’s good nerdy fun to think of oneself as existing above the constraints of standard usage, and fun, too, to construct a straw man “Grammar Police” bad guy to worry about, but standard grammar would serve those girls better in life than using “who” for “how much” ever will.

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