Just the Facts, Ma'am

We recently had an invigorating discussion about facts, so I thought I'd actually look the word up. I know, linguists tell us that dictionaries don't define words, they document usage. I'll make no appeals to authority here! Nonetheless, it's an interesting selection from the OED. Who knew that facts can be acts, disputed, and guilt? Or that Sgt. Friday never said,"Just the facts, Ma'am"?

fact, n., int., and adv.

Etymology:  < classical Latin factum deed, action, event, occurrence, achievement, misdeed, real happening, result of doing, something done, in post-classical Latin also thing that has really occurred or is actually the case, thing known to be true (11th cent.; from 13th cent. in British sources), case, legal dispute (from 13th cent. in British sources), use as noun of neuter past participle of facere to make, do < an extended form of the Indo-European base of do v.

 I. Senses relating primarily to action.

1. An action, a deed, a course of conduct; (formerly also occas.) †an effect, a result. Also as a mass noun: action, deeds, as opposed to words. Now somewhat rare.

Interesting that the word also carries the meaning of actions, deeds, events. Real things, indeed.

II. Senses relating primarily to truth.

6. Law
 a. The sum of circumstances and incidents of a case, looked at apart from their legal bearing.
 b. In pl. with the same sense. Also: items of information used or usable as evidence.

7. That which is known (or firmly believed) to be real or true; what has actually happened or is the case; truth attested by direct observation or authentic testimony; reality.

Firmly believed?

8a. A thing that has really occurred or is actually the case; a thing certainly known to be a real occurrence or to represent the truth. Hence: a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to an inference, a conjecture, or a fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based on it.

b. With the and following clause or preposition.
 (a) The actual occurrence of an event; the real existence of a situation or state of affairs.
E.g.: 1986   Amer. Scholar 65 572/1   The fact of their nationality colors the way men and women think, particularly about politics and society.
(b) The circumstance that something is the case.

 c. Uses emphasizing the truth of an assertion, esp. in fixed phrases.
 (a) The (honest) truth. Freq. in the fact is with that-clause, esp. asserting something surprising, unwelcome, or controversial, or making an admission; also colloq. (orig. U.S.) without the.
 (b) A true statement. Freq. in (and) that's a fact.

d. A person, an institution, etc., undoubtedly in existence; a person or thing experienced or seen.

9 is interesting because it goes against what I think a fact is. I'll leave all the example sentences.

9. A piece of information allegedly or conceivably true; something presented as a fact (in sense A. 8a) but which is disputed or unproven; (more strongly) an unproved assertion, an allegation.

1566   W. Painter Palace of Pleasure I. lii. f. 304,   I humblie beseche you to tell me the truth of this facte.
1632   J. Hayward tr. G. F. Biondi Eromena 21   They resolved that the Admirall should goe disguised..to assure himselfe of the fact [It. fatto].
1699   tr. C. de Saint-Evremond Arguments M. Herard 113   The Fact is false, there has been no dissipation of the Cardinal's Goods by Monsieur Mazarin.
a1729   S. Clarke Serm. (1730) V. i. 8   It would have been absurd to allege, in preaching to Unbelievers, a Fact which itself presupposed the Truth of Christ's Mission.
1797   Morning Chron. 27 Aug. 2/4   If another soldier should call you a jail-bird, and the truth of the fact be notorious.
1824   Westm. Rev. 2 209   This is..a false fact, supported by a supposed motive.
1872   W. H. Lamon Life Abraham Lincoln xi. 236   Douglas denied the fact; and Lincoln attempted to prove his statement by reading a certain passage from Holland's ‘Life of Van Buren’.
1941   A. M. Lindbergh Diary 13 Oct. in War within & Without (1980) 233   It bases its accusations on false statements and inaccurate facts.
1968   Hartford (Connecticut) Courant 29 Aug. 16/4   One cannot help but question the credibility of the writer's facts.
2002   Vanity Fair June 160/3   Waksal hotly disputed some of the facts in that story.

10. Guilt, especially actual guilt as opposed to suspicion. Obs.


P9. orig. U.S. "just the facts ma'am" and variants: used with reference to the eliciting or presentation of an unembellished or straightforward account of factual information. Also attrib.: strictly factual; unembellished, dry.With allusion to the investigative technique of police detective Sergeant Joe Friday in the U.S. radio and television series Dragnet (first broadcast in 1949), although the exact phrase ‘Just the facts ma'am’ did not occur in either the television or radio series.


C1 a.   fact-fetishism n.

1957   D. MacDonald Triumph of Fact iii, in Anchor Rev. No. 2. 122   Fact-fetishism is to some extent a class phenomenon.
1964   K. Winetrout in I. L. Horowitz New Sociol. 149   We wind up with fact-fetishism, with a ‘social science of the narrow focus, the trivial detail, the abstracted almighty unimportant fact’.
2010   P. Garrett Victorian Empiricism 201   An all too familiar definition of empiricism as fact-fetishism.

C2.  fact-proof adj. impervious to facts, willing to disregard facts.

1828   Foreign Q. Rev. Feb. 28   Nothing softer than the Reviewer's fact-proof cranium could resist it.
1909   G. B. Shaw John Bull's Other Island p. ix,   He is never quite the hysterical, nonsense-crammed, fact-proof, truth-terrified, unballasted sport of all the bogy panics..that now calls itself ‘God's Englishman’.
2010   Sydney Morning Herald (Nexis) 2 Nov. 11   So anger is a standard tool, used by both sides of politics. Is there anything new about it? One striking feature of rage 2010 seems to be that it is increasingly fact-proof.

Source: "fact, n., int., and adv.". OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67478?result=1&rskey=b6Jdx4& (accessed March 24, 2015).


Grim said...

The OED is a very good place to begin. I am often persuaded by their etymology, although once I found what I think may be an error in their assignment.

Lars Walker said...

The Norwegian word for fact is "kjensgjerning," a compound word meaning "actions that are known."

E Hines said...

When I use a fact, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

Yes, but the question is whether you can make a fact mean so many things!

jaed said...

With definition 9, I think the important part is "allegedly or conceivably true".

"Joe has red hair" is a fact in this sense (even if it turns out Joe's a blond) because you could prove it to be true, while "beauty is truth, truth beauty" is not a fact because it's not provable. (Even if it's true!)

Tom said...

Lars, is "kjens" related to "ken: knowledge, understanding, or cognizance"?

jaed, that makes sense. It's even somewhat similar to what Grim was arguing in that other thread:

Fact: A statement that can be proven true or false.

jaed said...

what Grim was arguing

Aha - I had in the back of my mind that I'd read something about the distinction recently, but didn't remember it was here. ;-)

Lars Walker said...

Yes, I believe the Norwegian word "kjen" is related to "ken," which exists in English but is more common among the Scots.

Tom said...

Lars, thanks!