Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Factoids Aren’t Facts

A Defense of Prescriptive Lexicography

I was reading a New York Times blog today – the Diner’s Journal – which features a column called “What We’re Reading”. A few times a week they'll post a variety of links to food-related fare on the web. One of the showcased links was to a list of 20 pieces of trivia about sausages, and the text accompanying the link reads “A few fascinating factoids about sausage.” I couldn’t help but think of a recent conversation I’d had that skirted the intersection of commonly misused words, words that sound as if they should mean something other than what they do, and wordy pet peeves. No, “travesty” does not mean the same thing as “tragedy” and should not be used in its place; “disinterested” is close to but distinct from “uninterested”; an acronym must be pronounced as a word of its own, otherwise it is a mere abbreviation (e.g., NATO vs. FBI).

What, then, of “factoid” and its usage in the NYT Dining Blog? The sausage article contains many little bits of information, curios of charcuterie, that are relatively pointless but true nonetheless. Is that not a shining example of how “factoid” should be used? If it is in fact an example that shines, it is only because it’s a usage that’s been gilded by the slippery, slopery forces of popular misuse. What I mean to say is that “factoid” cannot be used interchangeably with “trivial fact”; and, despite such usage having crept into the daily lexicon and even some dictionaries (as a secondary definition, mind you), the misuse of the word should not be complacently condoned or passively tolerated – “factoid” as “fact” should be actively eradicated.

The first recorded use of the word “factoid” was by Norman Mailer in his 1973 autobiography of Marilyn Monroe, where he described factoids as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” In the context of the autobiography, Mailer was referring to the unverified tidbits of misinformation that Hollywood PR men would circulate to help construct and justify the separation of the celebrity narrative from that of real life. The word went on to be defined in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” From its creation, “factoid” has meant something other than fact – not necessarily fiction, but unverified, and I think the implication and tone of Mailer’s usage is that factoids are fabricated, usually with a less than benign intent. Thus, “Eskimos have 47 words for snow” is a factoid; but “In Asia and later the Mediterranean, sausages were left out to ferment, producing lactic acid that retarded the growth of spoilage bacteria” is just trivia. “The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space/the moon”: factoid; “Traditional sausage is encased in the submucosa, the collagen layer of animal intestines”: trivia.

Even if we ignore the history of the word, a cursory look at its morphemes reveals its intended and necessary meaning. The root, “fact-” means, well, you know. The suffix, “-oid” means “similar to but not the same as”. A factoid is then something that resembles a fact, but isn’t actually factual. The nature of the factoid’s resemblance to fact is found purely in the factoid’s formulation and presentation: authoritative and, without a second thought, plausible. And the difference is solely in the truth-value of the factoid: at best it’s unknown, but in most cases, it’s false. The “-oid” suffix implies a lack of some essential quality that gives the root its rootiness, and this holds true in many examples of “-oid”iness. An asteroid is a celestial object that resembles a star, but is actually a rocky body in orbit; a rhomboid is a shape that resembles a rhombus, but its adjacent sides are actually of unequal lengths; an android resembles a human, but its Emotron 4000 Feelings Simulator can only approximate love and its flawless chess and break-dancing skills are far beyond what any living person could achieve.

All this etymological investigation can only carry us so far, though. Sooner or later, we have to get our noses out of the books and discover how the word is actually used in everyday speech, right? Does it really matter how the person who coined the word defined it if that’s not how it’s used today? Mustn’t we acquiesce to popular usage, even if it flies in the face of the original meaning? Here we come to a bit of an impasse: should lexicography merely be a reflection of how people actually do speak and write, or should it be a guide to how people should speak and write? Should dictionaries be descriptive or prescriptive?

Of course, this is a bit of a false dichotomy; dictionaries should be able to reflect how people use words without sacrificing all standards of meaning, spelling and use. They have to be fluid, but they can’t be too fluid. New meanings to old words and new words themselves arise all the time, and lexicographical reference texts have to be able to accommodate this. Certainly popular usage must be considered when determining the meaning and form of a word, but it can’t, and shouldn’t be the sole consideration. Texting has introduced a whole new pseudo-lexicon of non-words that are probably more commonly used than most word-words, but this doesn’t mean that “u” should be inducted into any dictionary as a word meaning “you”, or “tho” as a word meaning “though” (except maybe the first-edition T-Mobile Dictionary of Texting).

Assuming that we agree that “u” shouldn’t be allowed to replace “you” and that “disinterested” cannot be swapped with “uninterested” and vice versa, then it seems clear that popular usage alone is not enough to determine semantics. This may seem trivial, but actually has fairly large implications. It suggests a belief that semantics – words and their meanings and forms – is in some ways orthogonal to popular usage. That there is some sort of entropic process inflicted upon language by popular usage, and it’s the job of semantics, lexicography, semiotics, what-have-you to protect language from total, chaotic degeneration. That there is some value to the notion of how words should be used in contrast with how they are used, and that it’s not a Good Thing for usage to be a free-for-all. Language is an art, yes, but all art is not created equal.

A kind of aesthetic relativism pervades our generation, borne of the recognition that I can’t justify why my taste in art is right and yours is wrong. This should be where the fun (re: arguing) begins, but increasingly it seems to be where the indifference settles – if I can’t prove that I’m right and you’re wrong, what’s the point in arguing about it? A similar sort of relativistic slide might be happening with regard to ethics and morality, although I think that there are probably more clear-cut incentives not to give way to relativism in matters moral than in affairs aesthetic. But even if people don’t want to argue about why they think Photorealism is better than Abstract Expressionism, they still think it! This kind of relativism only hides beliefs of aesthetic or moral superiority; it doesn’t, thank goodness, destroy them. A rejection of this relativism doesn’t entail an embrace of any kind of absolutism, but rather an acceptance that we all think certain things are good and certain things are bad and that arguing about which is what can be quite productive and illuminating.

If we didn’t hold such beliefs and have such arguments, and actually believed in one absolute set of morals and aesthetics, then maybe we would be living in some sort of utopian society (or dystopian; Brave New Worldoid). Or, if we completely accepted relativism, there might be a decline to nihilism, because if everything is neither good nor bad, then what’s left? Nothing. And getting back to semantics, what would happen if we just accepted popular usage as the arbiter of meaning?

To put it bluntly, language would be dumbed down. To put it more precisely, language would be diluted, as words with very specific meanings would either be abandoned or stripped of their nuance by the vulgar speech of the masses. This might sound distressingly elitist, but elitism and unapologetic intellectualism (for lack of a better term) aren’t always the same, and whatever this is, its origin is of a loving nature: a love for language and the spoken word. If the choice is to protect what one loves at the expense of seeming elitist, or to watch that same thing be destroyed by the hands of ignorance, then I don’t think there’s much of a choice at all.

And this is where lexicographers must intervene. It is not just their coincidental function to guide the proper use of language – it is their moral duty. We must ask the question: do we want to succumb to power of popular usage at the expense of having diversity, detail and elegance in language? The answer, I should hope, is no; and insofar as we accept lexicographers as the authorities on what words mean and how they should be used, then it is their responsibility to shield their authoritative texts from the corrupting influence of popular usage. (Or at least to seriously consider whether or not popular usage might warrant a lexicographical amendment.)

There are numerous examples of meanings changing due to popular usage – but for the most part they seem to follow the pattern of words with broad, general definitions being used popularly with specific connotations that eventually narrow the accepted meaning of the word. While I can’t say I think such a semantic shift should be uncritically accepted, I do think it’s less offensive than the opposite kind of shift, as we see in the example of “factoid”. With its original meaning “factoid” fills a lexical gap, providing definition where before there was none; if we accept its popular slide to “fact” synonymy, then we are losing a unique linguistic tool, and for what reason? Because popular usage is being allowed to determine dictionary entrance, when in fact it should be the other way around? And to add insult to injury, some English-language style and usage guides now recommend against using "factoid" altogether because its meaning has been so muddled by rampant misuse. In this case, popular misuse is an undeniably destructive process, and destruction of language is an enemy to all who love it, whether professionally or as a hobby.

There is a problem with accepting lexicographers and dictionaries as the keepers of usage and meaning and all that they seem to keep. What gives them the right? Sadly, the best answer I can think of is that, well, somebody’s gotta do it. We need some sort of authority on this matter, but no single authority is definitive. So if the word “factoid” appears in the Free Dictionary Online as “a brief fact”, we don’t have to submit unwillingly to such absurdity. No, we can reference other dictionaries; we can clutch the OED to our chests, feel reassured by its wordy weight and gently rock back and forth, softly repeating to ourselves, “There’s no such thing as ‘irregardless’, there’s no such thing as ‘irregardless’…” And still, we must remember that dictionaries and lexicographers are the guides, not the gods, of semantic usage. Even the seemingly respectable Merriam-Webster dictionary secondarily acknowledges “factoid” as meaning something close to “brief fact”. (Interestingly, Noah Webster himself was a radical lexicographical prescriptivist – his intervention is why we Americans have no “u” in words like “color” and “honor”, and write “program” and “center” instead of “programme” and “centre”.)

Still, getting the nod from the M-W doesn’t automatically validate the newer meaning of “factoid”; it just goes to show that some lexicographers aren’t good at their job. Language is a beautiful thing, but its beauty shouldn’t be taken for granted. Like many beautiful things that don’t have a tangible effect on economy – whether the economy in question is financial or lexical – it’s a beauty that must be actively preserved or will in all likelihood by carelessly discarded in favor of what requires the least short-term effort.

So, dear reader, who hath suffered through so much verbiage of “popular usage” and “lexico-whatever”, I implore you, I beg you, I humbly and hopefully appeal to your fellow love of the English language in all its wonderful, confusing frivolity – next time you hear someone use the word “factoid” to mean anything other than what Mailer intended it to mean, speak up. Correct them; counter the collapse of the common vocabulary; take a stand against complicity in popular misuse; say “No” to the consolidation of meaning and to the congealment of language into a dull, monosyllabic blob. To do anything else would be a travesty.

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