Sharing an intersting factoid
I recently came across a list of something called “interesting factoids.” I have to admit that I’ve used the word factoid, but I’ve never really known what it meant. I decided to look it up because using words whose definitions I either didn’t know or thought I knew and was wrong about has gotten me into trouble more than once.
When I was a kid, my father overheard me calling my sister a douchebag. I had absolutely no idea what that meant but I knew that one of the cool guys in my class called another kid a douchebag for being a little less cool than the rest of us. I had laughed along with the other cool kids and assumed it was a much cooler way of calling someone a dork or a poopy-head.
My father was quick to snatch me up and point out the literal definition in ways that only a father can and I never used that term incorrectly again. To this day if I call someone a douchebag you can rest assured that he is an actual proven douchebag like Rush Limbaugh or Bob Saget.
The word factoid always sounded to me like a cute little fact. For example, it’s a cute little factoid that the muzzle velocity of an M-16 is 3110 feet per second (isn’t that just adorable?). Then again, isn’t a fact is just a fact?
For instance, it’s been well established that I have a huge ego, so because my ego is large is that a large fact? At the same time it’s no secret that for a man of my age and build I have a very small … gun collection (I know what you thought I was going to say … clean up your mind and stop believing rumors), is that then a small fact? I don’t think so, with facts, as with so many other things in life, size doesn’t matter!
To clear it all up I decided to look up the word factoid in the well-worn dictionary I keep on my desk (yup, I’m so old I actually keep a dictionary on my desk), but factoid wasn’t in there. I opened the dictionary function on computer and typed in factoid and it told me “No result found”.
Next, I typed factoid into my computer’s search engine and found several definitions from a number of other dictionaries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word factoid actually has two meaning; “a brief or trivial item of news or information”, or it could also be “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”
So which is it, a piece of trivia or a piece of malarkey repeated so often we start believing it? Raccoons are capable of opening complex locks and remembering the solution for up to three years. Donald Trump is a straight shooter who will make a great president. One is a piece of trivia and the other is questionable information often repeated (I’ve never seen a raccoon pick a lock) so which is actually a factoid?
Still confused I broke my usual habit pattern and did some actual research. I learned that writer Norman Mailer created the word factoid 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.” So by Mailer’s own definition did the word factoid become a factoid because we all read it and believed it was a word? Whoa … I think I need some of whatever Norman Mailer was smoking when he cooked up this nonsense back in the seventies.
So here’s a little factoid for you; by writing this column I have just perpetuated (that’s a real word, I looked it up) the very existence of the word! All I really wanted to do was write a column about some semi-amusing trivia and I ended up going down this rabbit hole.
I’m a writer, despite what the critics say, and I believe the real art of writing is using words that already exist to convey an original thought as opposed to making up words to fit what you’re thinking. Heck, engineers do that!
From now on if I have some trivia (interesting or otherwise) to share I’ll just call it trivia; otherwise I’ll stick to my usual malarkey or, in the immortal words of Jack Webb, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Rick Seley is an award-winning humor columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.