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noun [uncountable]

information which is presented as if it is based on serious research but is in fact based on what someone thinks is true

'Anecdata always has the potential to mislead. Consumers with individual or small-group policies that have been cancelled are a tiny proportion of the insured, and are also a small proportion of those most affected by health reform.'

The Nation 11th November 20134

The word information is a very open-ended, 'one-size-fits-all' kind of a term. On the one hand, it may refer to hard facts, the kind of knowledge which is based on actual evidence or research. On the other hand, and more often than not, 'information' may be the product of far less reliable sources – personal experience, hearsay, speculation or even individual opinion. A novel way of referring to the latter kind of information is the term anecdata, a coinage which sprung up some time ago but has begun to enjoy a little more exposure over the last couple of years.

the slippery thing about anecdata … is that it takes on the guise of substantiated fact … but is in reality pretty tenuous and based on casual evidence or experience

It's probably fair to say that the majority of us either read or hear some kind of anecdata on a daily basis. It's difficult to imagine how the wheels of the media – broadcast or published – would keep turning without a generous helping of anecdata to keep the stories flowing. Though a proportion of the information we hear or read about will be based on actual facts and truths, it's unrealistic to expect everything reported to be grounded in solid and indisputable evidence, and so other stimuli, like individual experiences or perceptions, inevitably inform what's presented. The slippery thing about anecdata, however, is that it takes on the guise of substantiated fact, ostensibly to prove a point or make a prediction about something, but is in reality pretty tenuous and based on casual evidence or experience. The term anecdata is therefore often used with humorous or even pejorative overtones – a kind of way of signalling that such information should be viewed with caution because it may be less reliable than it appears.

Background – anecdata

The term anecdata first began to appear in the early nineties and is a blend of the noun data and the adjective anecdotal meaning 'based on personal experience rather than on facts that can be checked'. The adjective anecdotal dates back to the late 18th century, derived from the earlier noun anecdote (a short story told by someone about a real incident). The word data is classed as a mass noun in contemporary usage, but historically was the plural form of singular noun datum meaning 'piece of information'. Mirroring this, there's also some evidence for use of a singular form anecdatum, which identifies a single piece of information of this (anecdotal) type.

Another expression featuring the word data which has emerged in recent years is the compound big data. This refers to a body of data, often generated by online activity, which is so large and complex that it becomes very difficult to manage with conventional database and data processing tools, and so new procedures must be developed to deal with it. The race to create effective solutions for big data is currently a hot topic in the world of technology.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! This downloadable pdf contains reading activities, matching key words from the article with their definitions, practising plural formation by finding the odd one out in groups of nouns, and learning about the structure of anecdotes with the aim of students writing their own.

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord article. Sinkhole.

This article was first published on 3rd March 2014.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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