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A factoid is a questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement formed and asserted as a fact, but with no veracity. The word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as "something which becomes accepted as fact, although it may not be true." However, the word can sometimes mean, instead, an insignificant but true piece of information. In either formulation, factoids are potentially factual, just not self-evidently so.

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", 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".

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

Examples

  • Many residents of the Australian city of Mount Isamarker believe that their city, in terms of its area, is the world's largest city by surface area or second largest. In reality, Mount Isa is the second largest city in Australia; there are several cities around the world with larger incorporated areas. Their own local council web site incorrectly suggests it is the second largest city on earth.
  • One belief associated with the Australian property bubble is that real estate doubles every 7 years. However, “Take the city of Sydneymarker - 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 will be worth $189,530,112.00.” Today, the average price of a home in Sydney is closer to half a million dollars rather than $189 million.
  • The media in Canadamarker have often reported that the city of Torontomarker was named by UNESCOmarker 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. Nonetheless, the belief in this status persisted for years, even finding its way onto UNESCO's own web site, into the pages of the New York Times and The Economist, 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. In reality no man-made object can be seen with a naked eye from the moon. Given good circumstances one might be able to discern the result of some human activity such as the changing of Holland's coast or the partial drying out of the Aral Seamarker, 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.
  • It is often thought that chameleons change colour to match their surroundings as camouflage. They are mostly well camouflaged and they can change colour, but they do not change colour to match their surroundings. The colour changes as its physical status changes and as a form of communication. Octopuses seem to change colour as a form of camouflage (but also as a way of communicating).
  • Dogs and cats are often thought to be completely colour-blind and see the world in scales of grey. That is wrong. They do have colour vision, dichromate, but not nearly as good as that of humans, trichromate i.e. red, green and blue light.
  • People in Texasmarker often believe that the Texas flag can stay on the same height as the American flag, because of its former status as a nation. However, in reality all state flags, by law, are supposed to be lower than the American flag.


Other meanings

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. In the United Kingdom, 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 recommend against its use. Language expert William Safire in his On Language column advocated the use of the word factlet to express a "little bit of arcana". Examples of the use of the suffix "oid" to denote things that have similar qualities but are not the same include asteroid ("star-like" but not a star), and android ("man-like" but not human). So strictly by etymology, factoid—"fact-like"—would be similar to but not a fact, and therefore untrue.

The term was also used in the original introduction to the Friend of a Friend Semantic Web project, introducing a technical use of the term grounded in RDF technology: "Each new home page that appears on the Web tells the world something new, providing factoids and gossip that make the Web a mine of disconnected snippets of information."

See also



Footnotes

  1. Wesley Pruden, Editorial in Washington Times
  2. Mount Isa City Council page suggesting their city is the second largest city in the world
  3. Beware the Selling Machines
  4. UNESCO Best Practices for Human Settlements: Metro Toronto's Changing Communities
  5. Clyde H. Farnsworth, "Toronto Journal: To Battle Bigots, Help from South of the Border," New York Times, Friday, 12 February 1993, 4.
  6. City of diversity, Economist City Guide: Toronto, [1] (retrieved May 24, 2007)
  7. See Great Wall of China's visibility
  8. http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/texas_flag_only_one_at_same_height_as_us_flag_urban_legend/
  9. [2]
  10. William Safire, "On Language; Only the Factoids," New York Times, Sunday, 5 December 1993.


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