Today is Monday, December 22, 2014

Factoids Revealed in Apostrophe Tergiversation

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By ANNE DONNELL

What is the story behind the word “factoid”? It sounds odd to me.  Also, do you have any explanation for the high instances of misuse of apostrophes around here? I’m, of course, referring to the absurd possessives seen on signs, in newspapers, even embroidered!  Thanks, enjoy your efforts to sort out the world. -A Local (Obviously) Reader

Before I wander off I’ll cite a quote attributed to John Wayne. I bumped into it (joyfully, I might add) on Facebook. A great guy had slapped it on his profile. “Life is tough, and even tougher if you are stupid.”

The concept appealed to John Wayne so much he also said, “Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” 

These two quotes form most of my explanation for, as QP of T (Question Person of Today) says, “the high instances of misuse of apostrophes around here.”

If the shoe fits, wear it.

REVIEW OF FORMING POSSESSIVES. (1) Singular noun – add ’s even if the noun ends in s. EXAMPLE. Chris’s. (2) Plural noun – add ’ (apostrophe) at the end. (3) Trouble (think about the John Wayne quote some more.) (a) Compound noun – add ’s to the last word. EXAMPLE. father-in-law’s. (b) More than one noun –  joint possession – add ’s to the last noun. EXAMPLE. Mary and John’s. (c) More than one noun, individual possession – Add ’s to each noun. EXAMPLE. Mary’s, John’s, and Larry’s.

Contrary to local usage, thus I assume belief, the only plural requiring an apostrophe is the plural of letters, numbers, abbreviations, and words used empty of meaning (which I’ll clear up shortly, unless the John Wayne problem is too advanced.)  EXAMPLES. T’s, 4’s, etc.’s, the’s.  Here’s that last one in a sentence. EXAMPLE. Don’t include the’s in a paragraph word count. 

Before you become too angry at my insulting tone here’s ONLINE DEPARTMENT bringing laughter and good cheer (Thanks, M.G.) “Quickies” • I dialed a number and got the following recording: 'I am not available right now, but thank you for caring enough to call. I am making some changes in my life. Please leave a message after the beep. If I do not return your call, you are one of the changes.' • Aspire to inspire before you expire. • My wife and I had words, but I didn't get to use mine. • Frustration is trying to find your glasses without your glasses. • Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting. • The irony of life is that, by the time you're old enough to know your way around, you're not going anywhere. • God made man before woman so as to give him time to think of an answer for her first question. • I was always taught to respect my elders, but it keeps getting harder to find one. • Every morning is the dawn of a new error.

So now let’s examine factoid. Evan Morris in his book The Word Detective, aptly named for his column (and website) “The Word Detective,” is the helper here. He tells us that factoid is the creation of Norman Mailer in his book Marilyn (1973). Mailer defined his new word as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

So why aren’t they lies?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) says factoid means “1: an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print 2: a briefly stated and unusual trivial fact.” Notice the second definition. The word is sliding toward something quite different: not invented facts, but trivial facts. This latter usage is the commonly used one now, especially in television coverage when little boxes bearing the label Factoid interrupt to add trivia.

I’d say this slide in meaning parallels our society’s (for example, politics) playing around with truth, using “facts.” We’ve let truth, honor, duty, allegiance slide into awkward mixtures of reality and “factoids.” Vision colluded with nonsense and greed. Or has it always been thus?

[ATA (According to Anne) -- Norman Mailer (1923- 2007, American writer, “noted for incorporation of factual material within a fictional framework.” (Concise Dictionary of World History). Others call this “narrative nonfiction” and cite Mailer among that genre’s pioneers along with Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee). Married 6 times. Mailer won 2 Pulitzer Prizes and 1 National Book Award. Marilyn: A Novel Biography ended with the suggestion that agents of the FBI and CIA murdered her (connection to Robert Kennedy the reason). His longest, Harlot’s Ghost, 1300+ pages, 1991, was about the CIA from the end of World War II to 1965. He was famed as a journalist and essayist. Quite a 20th century American voice.]

BW’s (Bigtime Words) -- sesquipedalian tergiversation – incomprehensible, evasive large words. (Thanks, C.D.) What would John Wayne say about that?

 

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