Factoid

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The Great Wall of China is often incorrectly referred to as the only man-made object visible from the moon.

A factoid is a questionable or spurious (unverified, false, or fabricated) statement presented as a fact, but without supporting evidence. The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context.[1] The word is defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as "an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact".[2]

Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper",[3] and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean "similar but not the same". 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".[4]

Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.

Examples[edit]

Mount Isa, Australia, is often incorrectly referred to as the largest city in the world by area.
Neither Toronto nor any other city was ever designated by UNESCO as the world's most multicultural city.

The following are well-known examples of factoids, and the facts which clarify or debunk them.

  • One belief associated with the Australian property bubble is that real estate value doubles every 7 years. However, "Take the city of Sydney - the Mecca of property investing. In 1890, the average Sydney home price was $1,446 (£723). If property really does double every seven years then, in 2009, the average Sydney home would have been worth $189,530,112.00." Today,[when?] the average price of a home in Sydney is closer to half a million dollars rather than $189 million.[5]
  • It is often reported that Toronto was named by UNESCO as the most multicultural city in the world. Although there have been some reports suggesting that Toronto may be one of the world's most diverse cities (see Demographics of Toronto), the United Nations agency has never designated any city as being the most multicultural or diverse.[6] Nonetheless, the belief in this status persisted for years, even finding its way onto UNESCO's own web site,[7] into the pages of the New York Times[8] and The Economist,[9] and into international media reports in respect of Toronto's two Olympic bids.
  • The Great Wall of China is often thought as being the only man-made object visible from the moon.[10] In reality no man-made object on Earth can be seen with the naked eye from the Earth's moon. Given good circumstances one might be able to discern the result of some human activity such as the changing of the Netherlands' coast or the partial drying out of the Aral Sea, but even that would not be easy. Some astronauts have reported seeing the Great Wall from low earth orbit, among a number of man-made structures. In reality, a viewer would need visual acuity 17,000 times better than normal (20/20) to see the Wall from the Moon, and vision 8 times better than normal to see it from low earth orbit.[11]
  • Dogs and cats are often thought to be completely color-blind and see the world in scales of grey. That is wrong. They do have color vision, dichromate, but not nearly as good as that of humans, trichromate, i.e., red, green, and blue light.[12][13]
  • It is often stated that the Texas flag is the only state flag that can be flown at the same height as the American flag, because of Texas's former status as a nation.[14] However, in reality, according to the United States Flag Code, all state flags are displayed at the same height as the American flag when on separate poles, with the American flag in a position of honor (to its own right). State flags should hang below the American flag while on the same pole, and should never be larger than the American flag. Moreover, Texas is not the only U.S. state to formerly have diplomatic recognition; Hawaii shares this status.

Other meanings[edit]

The word factoid is now sometimes also used to mean a small piece of true but valueless or insignificant information, in contrast to the original definition. This has been popularized by the CNN Headline News TV channel, which, during the 1980s and 1990s, used to frequently include such a fact under the heading "factoid" during newscasts. BBC Radio 2 presenter Steve Wright uses factoids extensively on his show. Occasionally these can be incorrect, such as in September 2012 defining a Googol as the number 1 followed by one million zeroes, when the correct definition is the number 1 followed by one hundred zeroes.[15]

As a result of confusion over the meaning of factoid, some English-language style and usage guides recommend against its use.[16] Language expert William Safire in his On Language column advocated the use of the word factlet to express a "little bit of arcana".[17]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Steve Wright's Book of Factoids. Harper. 2006. ISBN 978-0-00-724029-6.  As read on his hit BBC Radio show "Steve Wright in the Afternoon".
  2. ^ Simpson JA & Weiner ESC, ed. (2008). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861258-3. 
  3. ^ Mailer, Norman (1973). Marilyn: A Biography. Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 0-448-01029-1. 
  4. ^ Pruden, Wesley (January 23, 2007). "Ah, there's joy in Mudville's precincts". The Washington Times. Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  5. ^ Beware the Selling Machines
  6. ^ Michael J. Doucet (October 2004). "The Anatomy of an Urban Legend: Toronto's Multicultural Reputation" (PDF). CERIS - Metropolis Toronto Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement. Retrieved 2007-05-23. 
  7. ^ UNESCO Best Practices for Human Settlements: Metro Toronto's Changing Communities
  8. ^ Clyde H. Farnsworth, "Toronto Journal: To Battle Bigots, Help from South of the Border," New York Times, Friday, 12 February 1993, 4.
  9. ^ City of diversity, Economist City Guide: Toronto, [1] (retrieved May 24, 2007)
  10. ^ See Great Wall of China's visibility
  11. ^ Norberto López-Gil. "Is it Really Possible to See the Great Wall of China from Space with a Naked Eye?". Journal of Optometry 1 (1): 3–4. doi:10.3921/joptom.2008.3. 
  12. ^ Cecil Adams, "Are cats and dogs really color-blind? How do they know?" May 1, 1987, The Straight Dope website. Accessed November 22, 2010.
  13. ^ Paulette Clancy, "Cats, dogs can see some color: Are cats and dogs color blind? Do cats' eyes glow in the dark?" Ask A Scientist! October 22, 1998. Found at Cornell University website. Accessed November 22, 2010.
  14. ^ barrypopik.com
  15. ^ Wright, Steve (2005). Steve Wright's Book of Factoids. HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-720660-7. 
  16. ^ Brians, Paul (2003). Common Errors in English Usage. William James & Company. ISBN 1-887902-89-9.  [2]
  17. ^ Safire, William (December 5, 1993). "On Language; Only the Factoids". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 February 2012.