or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come

I get e-mail notifications of all comments to my blogs, but it was still a bit of a surprise that someone commented today on a really old thing I had written, back in April of 2005. Here's part of what the anonymous reader wrote:

I must confess to noticing many similar typos and mistakes, so I like reading your blog. But you've used 'factoid' incorrectly, tsk, tsk! A factoid is a 'fake fact' rather than a small, unimportant fact. A small lie that is posing as a bit of truth. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factoid. True, CNN perpetuated their bits of trivia as factoids, and even on BBC trivial facts were termed 'factoids,' but I would expect you to know that -oid appended usually denotes something that's pretending to be something else.

But "-oid" doesn't really mean something pretending to be something else, because that suggests a deliberate attempt to confuse: it means something that isn't quite its namesake but that calls it to mind through its general outline.

First things first, though. "Factoid" as it was originally coined did mean something untrue, a fib written for purposes of propaganda. The OED cites its first written usage in 1973 in the words of Norman Mailer, who described them as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper", things which are used to manipulate.

However, over the years, the word became corrupted to mean some little blurby fact used to fill a column inch or two in a newspaper. As a result, it's probably best not to use the word at all, I suppose; but I did use it, and I thought the context in which I used it made my intended meaning clear.

The suffix "-oid" comes from Greek "eidos", "form, shape". When Mailer borrowed the suffix to coin his word, he clearly had in mind the idea that a factoid had the approximate appearance of a fact, but wasn't really one.

However, what "-oid" nearly always means in one way or another is "having the shape of", and the idea of fakery just isn't there, though the sense of not-quiteness is. The suffix is often used in anatomical terms (which do love to describe body parts in terms of their shape), as in "thyroid", "shield-shaped", or "arachnoid", referring to a membrane separating two parts of the brain: it means "spider-like" but actually signifies a cobweb-shaped membrane. (Oh, and "xiphoid", "sword-shaped", the praises of which I have already sung.)

Astronomy likewise has a number of "-oid" words, such as "asteroid" ("star-shaped", although "planetoid", "planet-shaped", is a better name) and "meteoroid". Geometry has among others "ellipsoid" and "rhomboid", each of which is its namesake at one remove: a rhombus has two pairs of parallel sides, where a rhomboid has only one, and an ellipsoid is a solid form created by rotating an ellipse around one of its axes.

In fact, pretty much every "-oid" word in English except the modern "factoid" is a scientific term, which makes Mailer's invention an anomaly. No wonder it was misconstrued and reinvented.


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