Friday, January 18, 2008

Factoids: fact or fiction?

Winston Churchill once said that the British and American peoples were ‘separated by a common language’. North Americans and people who live on the British Isles speak English, but many times we use different words for specific actions or items, or use the same word with different meanings.

In 1983 Marina and I went to the United States to complete our missionary training. A few weeks after we arrived we bought a car from a local farmer for $125. It was a huge, 1967 Pontiac Catalina with a 400 inch/????cc engine. Gas-guzzler/petrol drinker, I think, is the right term! As we were returning to the missionary training centre/center, a State trooper patrol car came up behind us with flashing lights and instructed us to pull in to the side of the road.

The reason the patrol car had pulled us over was because the inspection ticket on the windscreen/windshield was out of date. But I thought he had pulled us over because the car was making so much noise.

As a trooper got out of his car and made his way along the driver’s side of our car I opened my window, and as he came level I started to hastily explain to him, in a thick Northern Irish brogue, ‘I’ve just bought the car, and the exhaust fell off and I put it in the boot.’

With a mystified look the trooper glanced at Marina, and then into the back seat, where Peter and Laura were sitting, and then looked back at me and said, ‘Are you French?’

I should, of course, have said, in American English, ‘the muffler fell off and I put it in the trunk.’

Today I discovered another word that illustrates how North Americans and Brits are still separated by a common language - it was the word ‘factoid’. To a North American it means: a brief or trivial item of information, but for someone from the United Kingdom it means: an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact, (Oxford English Dictionary).

I came across the word in a World Bank report that I had downloaded from the internet. There was a link to a web page entitled, ‘50 Factoids on Africa’. I immediately thought that it was a list of 50 myths or fabrications about Africa, but, as it turned out, it was actually a list of statistics and generally reliable information, so the author definitely had to be a North American.

It was a good reminder that when writing, or translating, it is paramount to be always thinking about your audience and what people are going to understand from what they are reading. We cannot just assume that because we know what a particular word or phrase means that everyone else is going to take the same meaning from it.

Anyway, I have listed a few interesting ‘factoids’ (accurate, just in case you are confused) for your perusal. Dozens more here.

* Crude oil comprises more than half of total Africa’s exports.

* Niger has the highest proportion of men in its labor force (95.1%); Namibia has the lowest (62.7%).

* In Swaziland more than one in every three 15-49 year olds has contracted HIV (33.4%); the rate is six in every thousand in Mauritania.

* Mauritius has the highest life expectancy (73 years); Botswana has the lowest (35 years).

* The Seychelles have the highest adult literacy rate (92%); Mali and Burkina Faso have the lowest (24%).

* In Sierra Leone two women die for every 100 live births; in Mauritius 24 die per 100,000 live births.

* In Niger 2 persons in 1,000 are Internet users.

* Liberia has three phone lines per 1,000 people; the Seychelles has 93 per 100 people.