Down With Factoid! Up With Factlet!

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Norman Mailer is probably ashamed of you.

Psst. I have something to tell you: factoid probably doesn't mean what you think it means. Don't worry, though, you are not alone and you can change.

"Factoid is now almost exclusively used to mean a brief interesting fact," The Grammarist notes with resignation. "This definition is still considered incorrect by people who follow English usage, but it's so widespread that we have to accept it, even if it does contradict the word's original sense."

I, too, was once in league with the barbarians. I had thought a factoid was a diminutive form of fact more than a derogatory one. Just last week, I used the word factoid in a recent post on the boom box's stunning success ("That factoid is a sidenote in a 2011 paper that I stumbled on from the Journal of Management and Marketing Research," I wrote.)

 The next day, I received the following email from Jim Milstein of New Uraniborg, Colorado:

I wish you, and a whole lot of others, would cleave to Norman Mailer's original coinage of the word factoid.  The suffix -oid usually means resembling, but not really a member of some category.  Examples: humanoid, planetoid.  So a factoid should properly be (and as Mailer used it) something that resembles a fact, but is not a fact.  You, and the whole lot of others, ought instead to use another word for a small probably unimportant but interesting fact.  I suggest the coinage, factlet.  In all other respects, I enjoy your writing and wish you well.

My standard response to grammarian challenge is this: language changes and words acquire new meanings. Deal with it. And factoid is so damn useful, especially when you write blog posts on the web that often revolve around brief interesting facts like the boom box's triumph.

But then I started to think about it. This is not merely the stretching of the word's meaning but rather its inversion. What Mailer meant to mean, essentially, a "fake fact" has come to mean "an interesting fact." And his original meaning is built into the word via the suffix. Once I knew the original usage, the problem began to stare at me: factOID factOID factOID. And now, when the etymology of any word is a single Google search away, it is impossible to feign ignorance.

So, join me in shunning factoid and adopting factlet. We can set this historical wrong right. Who's coming with me? Who's coming with me? Down with factoid! Up with factlet!

This message brought to you by the Campaign to Eradicate Factoids. Follow us online at #STOPFACTOIDS2012.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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