Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Facto or factoid?

Austin Frakt has started a Twitter string, partly prompted by an exchange with me, that has me troubled about the name of my blog, which was a casual accident.

The substantive discussion was about whether policy outcomes eventually settle policy debates (Frakt is skeptical). The Twitter shorthand is "fact or factoid?"  That brought me back to what I thought I was doing in naming this blog.

I opened a space on Blogspot called xpostfactoid in 2004 and put up a handlful of entries about the Kerry campaign. It sat fallow until 2007, when Obama appeared on the horizon. The name was, I think one of those spontaneous puns that please the finder and then aren't given much thought.  But it did later take on a significance to me that I'm now thinking was founded on a double error.
To me, the name signals that I'm not a journalist: I'm tripping along after the fact(oid), trying to make sense of things by the kind of close reading that's really just about my only skill.  One fact that did trouble me a bit along the way is that the primary meaning of ex post facto is legal: it means passing a law that makes an act already committed illegal (and is banned by the Constitution). My pun played on the literal and now only secondary meaning: after the fact.  But why "factoid," other than that it sounds funny because it alters a familiar phrase?

Long ago, a professor teaching a course on the teaching of writing asked me in class how I came up with  ideas for my papers. I said I thought of it as picking threads.  You read a text, and you pick at some rough spot, like recurrent water images or some little current of hostility for an alleged beloved, and you pick at it until a strand of related images or passages or whatever starts unraveling/growing.  If it's core enough, you get the whole work re-spun in your hand, like the bird who unraveled Harry the dirty dog's sweater and made a bird's nest of it.

I thought of "factoid" in that way -- as a little tidbit, like a byte, to pick on and get at some larger, preferably hidden issue. The thing is, as this Twitter string brought me to realize, a factoid is not (usually) a little fact, it's a quasi-fact, a little turd of truthiness. "xpostfactoid" would then signify "after the phoney fact," which I suppose could work, if it's about setting the record straight. But it isn't what I had in mind, insofar as I had anything at all in mind, originally.  (Though once again, it seems, I glommed onto the secondary meaning, which Merriam-Webster gives as "a briefly stated and usually trivial fact."

So: nice bit of close reading there, effectively deeming my blog a map of misprision.  The hopefully-not-too-conscious hunt for a new name begins.

Or maybe there's a kind of fitness in punning on a pair of secondary meanings. You can't get any more xpostfactoid than that.


  1. So, factoid doesn't mean what most people believe it means; I've been corrected by the linguistic police in my (mis)use of factoid. But I like the word. I like the way it sounds. And what's wrong with using a word in a way most people believe is appropriate even if they are wrong. I once had a professor who described his assistant as his factotum major. I like factotum, and major gives it a regal flair. Factotum may not mean what most people believe it means but it's a great word too.

  2. I agree with rayward, I always took your name the same way you did, not thinking about it too much but sort of assuming you were filling in your thoughts after the fact, sort of. And a catchy phrase. Good enough, I would keep the name it is a good one.

    Michael H.