According to my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English, a factoid is ‘an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as FACT’. ‘Factoid’ was coined by author Norman Mailer; in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, he described it as facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper. To all those who take the printed word as gospel – don’t!
I am giving below some factoids that most people accept as facts:
1. ‘The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the moon.’ I have heard many people say this; in fact, I heard it in a quiz once! NOT TRUE! The Great Wall of China can’t be seen from the moon; a human would require visual sharpness 17,000 times that of normal to achieve this impossibility.
2. ‘Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world.’ I was in Toronto this summer and heard this from a couple of Torontonians. Yes, Toronto is a multicultural city but it may not be the MOST multicultural. Amazingly, this factoid has been mentioned in the UNESCO site, by New York Times and by the Economist.
3. ‘Nero ‘fiddled’ while Rome burned’. Well, he couldn’t have since the violin had not been invented during his time. According to historians, when he heard of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero rushed to the city to oversee the relief efforts, opened the palaces for the displayed people to live in and financed the relief work.
4. We all know what ‘rule of thumb’ is; it indicates a way of generating a quick estimate. It has been reported frequently that the phrase comes from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it is not thicker than the width of his thumb. While the origin of the phrase is still nebulous, the ‘wife beating’ explanation has been reported many times in media including Time, Washington Post and CNN.
5. We all believe that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” and it is popularly attributed to her. Didn’t Freddie Mercury make the same attribution in the song Killer Queen? However, it is unlikely that this is true. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a variation in his “Confessions” before Marie Antoinette came to France. And many claim that it was actually Marie-Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV, who used a variation of the phrase (“let them eat pastry”) almost a hundred years before.
Unfortunately, thanks to the incorrect usage by TV channels like CNN and even BBC, factoids have now acquired a second meaning – pieces of trivia. Many dictionaries now give this additional meaning for ‘factoid’; a pity since the original meaning is so much more interesting and without a suitable synonym.
Examples from Wikipedia.