Dale, I thought we almost beat this one to death in ‘factoid’ (posting # 2978). Also, rather than quoting one sentence from Word Detective, which BTW was the questioner’s misinterpretation and not the Word Detective’s words, you might want to indicate what Word Detective’s actual response was:
“Unfortunately, the repetition of "factoid" in this "trivial fact" sense has taken its toll, and ALMOST NO ONE REMEMBERS THE ORIGINAL MEANING. Hence the secondary "trivia" definition found in most current dictionaries almost certainly will, at some point in the near future, become the primary one.”
It is a fact ‘sad but true’ and Morris laments this in his next sentence, “Mailer's original negative definition of "factoid" was a valuable contribution to the language on a par with George Orwell's "Newspeak," and, in this age of spin doctors, "factoid" still fills a conspicuous need [[implication: would fill but goes unfulfilled]]. Perhaps we should petition CNN to give us our word back.” Unfortunately this ain’t goin’ to happen. So WIZes of the world, I’m sorry but, like it or not, USAGE has once again trumped a ‘proper’ definition (i.e. the original and Mailer’s when he invented the word).
Well, it has been several years since Evan Morris, the Word Detective, wrote the above and I believe “that point in the near future” has now been reached and that by force of widespread usage (e.g. television, newspapers, magazines, . . .) almost no one regards ‘a factoid’ as anything other than “an interesting piece of trivia” but a fact nonetheless! The truth is, that it is be extremely awkward to have a word meaning something and also its opposite (or nearly so) at the same time (a Janus word), especially when in a typical sentence it would not be at all clear which was meant. And when our self-correcting English language, realized the problem with having this duel meaning, it acted accordingly and has succeeded, for all practical purposes in obliterating the old one. And for the real answer right now, ask the masses and not the dictionaries – the dictionaries are still catching up (a 1999 survey of American Heritage Dictionary panelists revealed ‘less enthusiasm’ (43 % found ‘factoid’ acceptable but preferred the use of such words as trivia or facts – but that was 5 years ago, and if they reconvened the panel today I’m sure they would be forced to reevaluate their position).
The ‘Colorado Springs Gazette’ is clearly using the word in its new sense and is saying that the so-called ‘more than a million jobs’ may not be a ‘fact’ at all (i.e. “is of questionable validity). It seems to me, that it makes not sense that they would be using the old sense since, logically, if they were invoking the old sense, “A spurious or questionable fact; especially something that is supposed to be true because it has been reported (and often repeated) in the media, but is actually based on speculation or even fabrication. (OED),” they would be saying that “a questionable fact is of questionable validity,” which really wouldn’t be a sentence worth saying, much less writing!
Not exactly sure what you mean by you ‘describes both.’ As far as ‘oxymoronic’ goes, that implies a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, such as in ‘deafening silence,’ ‘cruel kindness,’ and more recently ‘CIA intelligence.’ So, according to the old meaning at least, a ‘factual factoid’ would be oxymoronic. If you mean a word describing ‘factoid,’ considering it to have the two bona fide meanings (one that it isn’t a fact and the second that it is, although a trivial one), then that would describe a Janus word (appears in American Heritage Dictionary) and I guess we would have to coin the adjective ‘Janustic.’
Some other possibilities referring to Janus words, which you wont find in any standard dictionaries but which have been suggested by various word mavens are: ‘self-contradictory,’ ‘antonymous,’ ‘enantidromic,’ ‘auto-antonyms’ (thus, ‘auto-antonymous’),’ ‘self-antonyms’ (thus ‘self-antonymous’), ‘antagonyms,’ (thus, ‘antagonymous’), and ‘contronyms’ (thus, ‘contronymous’).
Ken – October 18, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)