Friday, March 15, 2019

Is that a factoid? by Michelle Styles

I was born in the US and even though I have lived over in the UK for more than 30 years, I still mainly think in American. I do like to think that I am reasonably fluent in British now as well.  I knew that a cot in the UK is a crib in the US for example. Or the differences between sandshoes and sneakers. However, I recently discovered that one word –factoid has two different and completely opposite meanings on either side of the Atlantic.

A factoid is in North America, a small piece of trivia, a tiny fact but crucially true.
A factoid in the UK is a statement which has been repeated so often that people believe it is true when it is in fact false.
So on one side of the Atlantic, a factoid is true and on the other, it is false. One word, completely opposite meanings depending on where you are or I suppose who you are talking to.
Ivy growing up a damson plum tree
 which is just coming into bloom.
Being American by birth, I had always assumed a factoid was true. Then I was reading Oliver Rackham’s Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape, the Complete History of Britain’s Trees, Woods & Hedgerows and he made this big point that factoids are false, and this had me scrambling for my Oxford English dictionary where I discovered the discrepancy with the two different meanings for one word.  And I have no idea how this discrepancy happened.
Ivy growing up a conifer tree
 on the border of Michelle
Styles' garden.Despite all her hopes,
the wind has not knocked it down yet!
  In case you were wondering Rackham used the statement Ivy kills the trees it grows up as a factoid or a false statement. In this case, the belief has been around since the 4th century and apparently often repeated by people who should know better but it is clearly not true. Ivy doesn’t kill its host tree.  The tree might not grow as well but it puts on growth and its leaves peek out from the ivy.  The tree might die from other causes or topple over in high wind due to the weight of the ivy but the ivy doesn’t kill it. I do live in how for that conifer at the end of my garden though...
The easiest way to solve this problem is just to avoid using the word. However, there have been times when discussing various aspects to  writing historical romance, I have had cause to use it – and mean the American understanding. Is it any wonder that people gave me puzzled looks? And here I was feeling so smug about being completely fluent in British English as well as American. It goes to show that the unknown unknowns that can trip you up.
It is why I double-check my facts when I am writing and now I am also going to have to check my factoids!

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical in a wide range of time periods. Her most recent Sent as the Viking’s Bride was published in December 2018.  She is currently working on her next Viking set romance and double checking all her facts and factoids to make sure they are true! You can find out more about Michelle and her books at

1 comment:

dstoutholcomb said...

what an interesting tidbit