Folklore Mondays: “Folklore” does not mean “untrue”

Hey! It’s Monday! I haven’t done a Folklore Mondays post in ages, so, you know–here’s one!

Any discipline or trade or hobby has its lingo. Equestrians have their trots and their canters and their stallions and their geldings; hair stylists have, like, words related to hair… styling… (?); astrophysicists have quarks and neutrinos and other things I really don’t understand but like to say because they remind me of Star Trek. And whatever thing it is that you do, whose lingo you’re particularly immersed in, there’s a fair chance that sometimes you have to listen to other people talk about that thing in a way that gets your nerdy blood boiling.

I’m a folklorist, and like any other field, folklore has a specialized vocabulary. Unlike some other fields–let’s run with the Star Trek example–folklore is concerned with understanding stuff that every human being does every single day. Folklorists study, first and foremost, everyday life. So while it’s certainly possible to ruffle a Star Trek fan’s feathers by liking Picard better than Kirk (or vice versa), the Star Trek universe has its own self-contained mythos and language and traditions that are not a part of life for everybody. They may all enter into the everyday lives of fans (and to be sure, they often do); but they aren’t things that everyone does, because not everyone identifies as a Star Trek fan. Some people hate Star Trek. Some people may never have heard of it and so have no opinion. Folklore, though, is something we’re all doing all the time. It has to do with communication in everyday, ordinary situations. So you may not like Star Trek or attend Trekkie conventions or care about Kirk and Picard, and none of that stuff enters into your daily life, and nobody can tell you it does. On the other hand, from the perspective of a folklorist, you absolutely are “doing” folklore, whether you think you are or not. Also, all that Star Trek stuff that fans do is totally folklore for the people who do it.

This is where difficulties can arise. Many people use words like “folklore,” “myth” and “legend” pretty much synonymously with “wrong,” “untrue,” “false” or, worst of all, “superstition.” (Folklorists write about this a lot in books and academic journals.) Consider the short definition of folklore from Webster:


noun folk·lore \ˈfōk-ˌlr\

: traditional customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings

: ideas or stories that are not true but that many people have heard or read

The first part of that isn’t so bad. The idea of tradition is central in folklore. A very famous model of folklore was proposed by folklorist Barre Toelken, who suggested that there are two forces that structure everything we can call folklore, what he called conservatism and dynamism [1]. We tend now to use the words “tradition” and “variation” to express the same ideas: on the one hand is the tendency for things to remain the same to some recognizable degree; on the other, the tendency to change over time and as different people use or perform the item or text in question. So imagine any fairy tale and all the many versions of it that you may have heard. Despite the differences, there’s usually a recognizable core narrative. In one version Cinderella has a musical bit with her fairy godmother and a bunch of talking mice, while in another the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet to make them fit into the glass slipper; regardless, they remain recognizably related to one another. “Traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean “old,” it just means having a certain degree of stability through some period of time.

The second part of Webster’s definition, though, is infuriating to me as a folklorist. There is absolutely no reason why something cannot be labeled as both “folklore” and “true.” Probably the most famous argument to this effect is David Hufford’s study of the “Old Hag” phenomenon [2], which I’ve cited before. But in common usage, “truth” and “folklore” are nearly opposites. In folkloristics (the fancy word for the academic study of folklore), though, calling something folklore has nothing to do with whether it is an accurate statement of something that exists or happened in the world or not. Calling something folklore means that it is characterized by those concepts of tradition and variation, that it is in some sense “ordinary” or everyday, that it is shared among people, and that is has to do with communication (of narratives, ideas, values, aesthetics, or whatever–see the Folklore page for more on this). Another famous folklorist, Dan Ben-Amos, defined folklore as “artistic communication in small groups” [3], and this definition still informs a lot of our thinking on the subject. (For a list of other definitions people have put forward, see the American Folklore Society’s What is Folklore? page.) So, as I have ranted about before, “folklore” (and related words like “myth,” “legend,” etc.) does not mean “false.”

There are a few important points that emerge from all of this. First, we all engage in folklore every single day. If you do something that combines creativity and communication, that has some element of tradition (i.e., it’s shared among or at least recognizable to other people), and that is appropriate in the context of your everyday life, that is folklore. If you sing the Happy Birthday song while your niece blows out the candles on her cake, or if you tell someone not to count their chickens before they’re hatched, or if you tell an inside joke that’s only comprehensible to you and your three best college buddies, all of that is folklore. Or at least, all of that can be approached as folklore, because it all has those characteristics of traditionality, communication, creativity, etc.

Secondly, when we study folklore, we are not concerned with whether it matches our own conceptions of truth or falsity. Popular media and websites like Snopes are concerned with “disproving” contemporary legends and other genres of folklore that make truth-claims which are felt to be counter to contemporary Western scientific understandings of the world. Folklorists don’t do this; instead we ask why those legends exist and are repeated by people in the first place. Truth and falsity are relative categories that have as much to do with a person’s cultural background, individual history, and immediate social environment as they do with “reality.”

So please, don’t use “folklore” to mean “untrue.” Because they aren’t synonyms. They’re not related at all.


[1] Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics Of Folklore. 1st ed. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), 39.
[2] Hufford, David. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
[3] Ben-Amos, Dan. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” The Journal of American Folklore 84, no. 331 (January 1, 1971), 13.

9 thoughts on “Folklore Mondays: “Folklore” does not mean “untrue”

  1. I’ve done a unit on urban legends and culture with middle school students. I will incorporate some of your ideas on folklore in the future.

    Your posts always get me thinking – thank you for that!

    • And thanks for the kind words! There’s a great textbook by my colleague Lynn McNeill called “Folklore Rules” that’s an awesome and fun intro–it’s meant as a college text, but honestly I think it’s pretty accessible to most ages.

      • I’ll check it out. The unit we cover is not essential, but the students always have a great time with it.

        Maybe this book would help me sneak a bit more substance in. For a text, it’s reasonably priced.

  2. Hello Angry Scholar – I loved this post! I recently got a PhD in Mythological Studies and have the exact same perspective as you – whenever anyone (so almost everyone) uses the word “myth” it is used to mean “lie.” As you suggest, and I firmly believe, there is truth in myth (and in folklore) – common usage doesn’t even come close to understanding what “they” are talking about. In my opinion, even when a story is meant to be a lie – there is truth the teller can’t even see in it. Not sure how I found your blog, but I’m interested to follow it. Good stuff.

    • Hey Joe, thanks for the kind words! Yeah, it’s a weird form of anti-relativism that first says “myth” is false, and then describes any beliefs out of step with a particular contemporay (usually Western) perspective as “myths.” I’m not arguing that everything everyone believes is true, of course: I’m only saying that we need to take other people’s perspectives into account before dismissing tradition as “just a myth.”

      Congratulations on the PhD! Mythological studies, you say? That’s got to be Pacifica, right? I check their website periodically for job openings. *wink*

      • Haha – Pacifica is right! Not sure the old Institute is ready for The Angry Scholar, but they sure could use you…!

      • Shucks! Their campus looks so crazy beautiful. Probably just as well–if I worked there I think I’d spend all my time sleeping in hammocks and drinking hilarious drinks out of coconut shells.

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