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The Great Wall of China is often incorrectly said to be visible from the Moon with the naked eye.

The term factoid can in common usage mean either a false or spurious statement presented as a fact, or a true, lesser-known fact. The term was coined originally in 1973 as a neologism by American writer Norman Mailer to mean a "piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it’s not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print."[1] Since then, the term has evolved from its original meaning, in common usage, and has assumed other meanings, particularly being used to describe a brief or trivial item of news or information.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines factoid as "1. A brief or trivial item of news or information" and "1.1 an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact".[2]

The term was coined by American writer Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.[3] Mailer described a factoid as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper",[4] 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".[5]

Accordingly, factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends. Several decades after the term was coined by Mailer, it grew to have several meanings, some of which are quite different from each other.[6] In 1993 William Safire identified several contrasting senses of factoid:

  1. factoid: accusatory: "misinformation purporting to be factual; or, a phony statistic."[6]
  2. factoid: neutral: "seemingly though not necessarily factual"[6]
  3. factoid: (the CNN version): "a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data."[6]

This new sense of factoid as a trivial but interesting fact was popularized by the CNN Headline News TV channel, which, during the 1980s and 1990s, often included 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 when, in September 2012, he defined a Googol as the number 1 followed by one million zeroes, when the correct definition is the number 1 followed by one hundred zeroes.[7]

Historian Dion Smythe defines factoids to be assertations about the truth, as documented in primary sources of historical research. In this indirect meaning, the truthfulness of factoids comes from objectively observable existence of such assertations themselves, and not from the truthfulness of what they claim about the world.[8]

Factoid versus factlet[edit]

As a result of confusion over the meaning of factoid, some English-language style and usage guides recommend against its use.[9] William Safire in his On Language column advocated the use of the word factlet instead of factoid to express a brief interesting fact as well as a "little bit of arcana" but did not explain how adopting this new term would alleviate the on-going confusion over the existing contradictory common use meanings of factoid.[10]

Safire suggested that factlet be used to designate a small or trivial bit of information that is nonetheless true or accurate.[6][10] A report in The Guardian identified Safire as the writer who coined the term factlet,[3] although Safire's 1993 column suggested factlet was already in use at that time.[6] The Atlantic magazine agreed with Safire, and recommended factlet instead of factoid, such that factlet would signify a "small probably unimportant but interesting fact", and that the term be used in place of factoid, which often has negative connotations.[11] The term factlet has been used in publications such as Mother Jones,[12] the San Jose Mercury News,[13] and in the Reno Gazette Journal.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Paul Dickson April 30, 2014, Time Magazine, The origins of writerly words, Retrieved August 9, 2015, "...On occasion, a writer will coin a fine neologism that spreads quickly but then changes meaning. “Factoid” was a term created by Norman Mailer in 1973..."
  2. ^ "factoid: definition of factoid in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US)". www.oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2015-07-13. 
  3. ^ a b David Marsh, 17 January 2014, The Guardian, A factoid is not a small fact. Fact: A factoid is subtly different from a trivial fact, whatever Steve Wright may claim, Accessed June 16, 2014, "... US writer William Safire felt a new word was needed to differentiate between the two meanings, proposing "factlet" to mean small fact or "little bit of arcana"...."
  4. ^ Mailer, Norman (1973). Marilyn: A Biography. Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 0-448-01029-1. 
  5. ^ Pruden, Wesley (January 23, 2007). "Ah, there's joy in Mudville's precincts". The Washington Times. Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f William Safire, December 5, 1993, The New York Times, On Language; Only the Factoids, Accessed June 15, 2014
  7. ^ Wright, Steve (2005). Steve Wright's Book of Factoids. HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-720660-7. 
  8. ^ Smythe, Dion (2007). "A Whiter Shade of Pale: Issues and Opportunities in Prosopography". Unit for Prosopographical Research, Linacre College, University of Oxford. ISBN 978-1-900934-12-1. 
  9. ^ Brians, Paul (2003). Common Errors in English Usage. William James & Company. ISBN 1-887902-89-9.  [1]
  10. ^ a b Safire, William (December 5, 1993). "On Language; Only the Factoids". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Alexis C. Madrigal, March 29, 2012, The Atlantic, Down With Factoid! Up With Factlet!, Accessed June 9, 2014, "..."Factoid is now almost exclusively used to mean a brief interesting fact ... ought instead to use another word for a small probably unimportant but interesting fact..."
  12. ^ Kevin Drum, April 19, 2010 , Mother Jones, Factlet of the Day, Accessed June 9, 2014
  13. ^ Jackie Burrell, May 19, 2014, The San Jose Mercury News, Amazing Race All-Star Winners: And the winner is (spoiler!!), Accessed June 9, 2014, "...Brendan has promised his bride that if they win the million bucks, she can have a baby, a factlet that keeps coming up in the most manipulative and unsavory ways..." (italics added)
  14. ^ Johnathan L. Wright, RGJ , May 26, 2014, Reno Gazette Journal, In One Ear: Cherchez the sparkle at jewelry fundraiser; Cakebread dinner, Accessed June 9, 2014, "...The chardonnay made its entrance next on the arm of rabbit loin wrapped in serrano ham (little food factlet for you: serrano ham couldn't be imported to the United States until 1997, when the pigs used in the ham were certified as free from African swine disease)..." (italics added)