The term was coined in 1973 by American writer Norman Mailer to mean a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it is not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. Since the term's invention in 1973, it has become used to describe a brief or trivial item of news or information.
The term was coined by American writer Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described factoids as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper", and formed 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".
Accordingly, factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends. Several decades after the term was coined by Mailer, it came to have several meanings, some of which are quite distinct from each other. In 1993, William Safire identified several contrasting senses of factoid:
- "factoid: accusatory: misinformation purporting to be factual; or, a phony statistic."
- "factoid: neutral: seemingly though not necessarily factual"
- "factoid: (the CNN version): a little-known bit of information; trivial but interesting data."
This new sense of a 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.
As a result of confusion over the meaning of factoid, some English-language style and usage guides discourage its use. 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 ongoing confusion over the existing contradictory common use meanings of factoid.
Safire suggested that factlet be used to designate a small or trivial bit of information that is nonetheless true or accurate. A report in The Guardian identified Safire as the writer who coined the term factlet, although Safire's 1993 column suggested factlet was already in use at that time. The Atlantic magazine agreed with Safire, and recommended factlet to signify a "small probably unimportant but interesting fact", as a factoid still connoted a spurious fact. The term factlet has been used in publications such as Mother Jones, the San Jose Mercury News, and in the Reno Gazette Journal.
- Chuck Norris facts
- Communal reinforcement
- Fake news
- Just-so story
- Talking point
- Woozle effect
- "factoid: definition of factoid in Merriam-Webster Dictionary (US)". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 14, 2015.
- "factoid: definition of factoid in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US)". Oxford Dictionaries Online. Archived from the original on June 14, 2013. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Dickson, Paul (April 30, 2014). "The origins of writerly words". Time. Retrieved November 14, 2015.
- Marsh, David (January 17, 2014). "A factoid is not a small fact. Fact: A factoid is subtly different from a trivial fact, whatever Steve Wright may claim". The Guardian. Retrieved June 16, 2014.
- Mailer, Norman (1973). Marilyn: A Biography. Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 0-448-01029-1.
- Pruden, Wesley (January 23, 2007). "Ah, there's joy in Mudville's precincts". The Washington Times. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
- Safire, William (December 5, 1993). "On Language; Only the Factoids". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 15, 2014.
- Steve Wright (2005). Steve Wright's Book of Factoids. HarperCollins Entertainment. ISBN 0-00-720660-7.
- Brians, Paul (2003). Common Errors in English Usage. William James & Company. ISBN 1-887902-89-9. "factoid" The Website of Prof. Paul Brians
- Safire, William (December 5, 1993). "On Language; Only the Factoids". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
- Madrigal, Alexis C. (March 29, 2012). "Down With Factoid! Up With Factlet!". The Atlantic. 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".
- Drum, Kevin (April 19, 2010). "Factlet of the Day". Mother Jones. Accessed June 9, 2014.
- Burrell, Jackie (May 19, 2014). "Amazing Race All-Star Winners: And the winner is (spoiler!!)". The San Jose Mercury News. 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)
- Wright, Johnathan L. (May 26, 2014). "In One Ear: Cherchez the sparkle at jewelry fundraiser; Cakebread dinner". Reno Gazette Journal. 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)