The Turning of the Word FactoidWhile listening to the NPR word show Says You, I heard an interesting bit on the word factoid, and figured that I'd do some additional research and write it up. I've found that people increasingly use factoid, at least in publishing, as a little bit of information used by itself, often in a little box or as part of an info graphic.
Yet the history is more interesting. Norman Mailer invented the term, combining fact with the suffix "oid," which means being like something, in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. What's like a fact but isn't a fact? A piece of information that's appeared so often that people assume it to be a fact, even though it may be incorrect.
This reminds me of a story that I wrote in the late 90s for Computer Shopper. Much of the technology press was using a statistic that 1 out of every 14 laptops was stolen. The stated source of the number was a company that offers computer insurance - and at the time, a laptop policy was about $100 a year, while laptops themselves were easily $1500 a year. That means the weighted average loss would be $210 dollar. In other words, the company would have lost, on the average, $110 per policy every year. Furthermore, so far as I could tell, neither the insurance industry nor law enforcement actually tracked the number of laptops stolen.
It sounded like misinformation designed to increase sales, so I talked to the company and it agreed with me that the number was bogus. But it came into being independently of them (though I didn't see them working hard to debunk it). The company tracked losses, which included damage and not just theft. Then it had its own estimate of the number of PCs in the world and projected out a whole number of stolen laptops. But it specifically never released how many laptops it thought there were; my guess is that the number would seem unrealistically high.
Then, supposedly, someone from a major technology publication took that number, matched it to some unrelated estiamte of the number of laptops, and came up with the 1 in 14 "statistic." Voila!: the birth of a factoid.