Last week’s piece on disc rot drew a bunch of attention from a variety of media outlets, along with some online critics that weren’t convinced that discs actually rot, based on their personal experience. (I put up a response regarding that over on Twitter.) But one reader’s comment caught my attention …
“Dude, I don't think the word ‘factoid’ means what you think it does,” writer 15 Percent Faster informed us.
He’s right, and we’ll take the blame. As it turns out, while a very common use of factoid is “a briefly stated and usually trivial fact,” the original use of the term is exactly the opposite: “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.”
I’m not the only person to make this mistake. Fusion writer Alexis Madrigal, while he was still with The Atlantic, received a similar note when he used “factoid” in the same way I did, and a reader complained, noting that the “-oid” ending represents an object that seems to represent the subject (in this case a fact), but isn’t actually a match. The term came to being in the 1973 Norman Mailer biography Marilyn, under its original meaning—but in our news-heavy culture, its meaning morphed in a interesting way.
As I wrote last year about the singular “they,” there are certain words that morph in ways where the rulebook doesn’t keep up with the broader language. But this is a case where the modern culture has taken a word and changed it to literally the opposite meaning.
“Once I knew the original usage, the problem began to stare at me: factOID factOID factOID,” Madrigal wrote. “And now, when the etymology of any word is a single Google search away, it is impossible to feign ignorance.”
So apologies: We used “factoid” when we meant “fact.” But that said, considering our era in which the veracity of our facts is constantly being challenged, maybe factoid is the perfect word for 2017—but just not the way that it’s usually intended.