A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's so urban about urban legends?

August 17, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

You spend a fair portion of your time unraveling, debunking and otherwise correcting "urban legends" (sometimes known as "urban myths," although there is a distinction). But . . .  why urban? Do cockamamie notions not occur in the sticks? Odd as city life can be, surely it gets strange out there in the hinterlands too. Why, then, is this weird stuff called urban?

Sure, there are such things as rural legends, but they're mostly called traditional legends or some such. In fact, from the beginning of the systematic study of folklore until the almost the middle of the twentieth century, they were just about the only kind that many folklorists recognized.

Folklorists in those days sought out the most remote, isolated, inbred, illiterate enclaves they could imagine, apparently on the theory that soap and folklore don't mix. Hence the prevalence in the annals of folklore of places like Cousin Hump Cove and Squalor Holler (the names have been changed to protect the incest).

I'm being facetious, of course. There's a good reason for folklorists to visit the countryside--when rural folk move to the city, they generally lose most of their traditional lore within a generation or two. It came as something of a shock when in the 1930s and 40s folklorists began to notice that city folk were telling stories that sounded an awful lot like folklore, but of a non-traditional variety. Hence the need for an adjective to differentiate the two types.

"Urban legend" wasn't the happiest choice, since the stories aren't uniquely urban and aren't all legends in the strict sense. In part we can blame influential folklorist Richard Dorson. He introduced the term in 1968 in "Legends and Tall Tales," a chapter of Our Living Traditions, edited by Tristram Potter Coffin. For decades before that, though, he and other folklorists had been describing modern folklore in terms indicating a city origin: "legends of the big city," "city legends," "urban belief tales," and so on.

Why the association with cities? Most urban legends assume an industrialized if not necessarily urban setting, with frequent references to automobiles, telephones, microwave ovens, shopping malls, fast food, ethnic restaurants, and other modern conveniences. When serious study of contemporary folklore began in the 1940s, such amenities were more likely to be found in cities than anywhere else--the suburbs hadn't boomed yet. 

Other terms, some arguably more accurate than "urban legend," have also been used. Newspapermen used to call persistent stories "dead catters." (See the index of any of Jan Harold Brunvand's books under "Cats, killing of" or "Cats, corpses of" or even "Cats, eating of" to see why.) Rodney Dale, author of The Tumour in the Whale (1978), is responsible for two more synonyms: "Whale Tumor Story" and "FOAFtale." The first is from a legend about a whale tumor sold as meat and the second is derived from the initials of "friend of a friend," the person to whom the oddest things always seem to happen.

"Modern myth" has a long history (it dates back to 1911 at least), but it and "urban myth" suffer from the shortcoming that these stories aren't myths in the sense that folklorists use the term. A myth is an orally transmitted story about the supernatural, believed by its traditional tellers, generally set in the distant past, and accounting for the origin of something. For example, the outlandish notion that the world is erected on the back of a turtle floating in water was actually believed by some primitive peoples long ago. Now of course we know that he swims through the interstellar gulf, not anything so prosaic as water. And there are elephants involved somehow.

Urban legends have also been called "modern legends," but that may wrongly imply a recent origin. Some "modern" legends can be traced back centuries, with the details varying over time. For example, the "Loaded Dog" or "Animal's Revenge" story (in which an animal on fire or carrying explosives destroys the property of the person responsible for the fire or explosives) has parallels going back to Aesop's fables and the Bible. 

Other urban legends, though they mention modern technology, are really old legends in disguise. Take the "Exploding Toilet" (in which a man drops a match or cigarette butt into the toilet that he is sitting on, not realizing that his wife has earlier dumped paint thinner into it). Folklorists have sniffed out the fact that it began life as a story about an outhouse. Or take the "Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker" (in which a homicidal maniac in drag asks for a ride). This story was told long before the automobile was invented; the vehicle used to be a horse-drawn carriage. For all I know, the legend might have been told before the carriage was invented: "Hey, lady, can I get a ride on your ass?"

The term contemporary legends also has a long history, being a translation of the French légendes contemporaines, in use by 1886. This is the term preferred by many professional folklorists, including the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, http://www.panam.edu/faculty/mglazer/isclr/isclr.htm.  "Contemporary" has the advantage over "modern" in that it implies only that the stories are still being spread, not that they are really new. However, "contemporary legend" has one disadvantage in common with "urban legend": Not all of the stories are really legends, in the sense that that word is used by folklorists.

A legend is a narrative--a story with at least one character and a plot--passed on by word of mouth and believed true by the teller but actually false. In Dorson's words, it is "the story which never happened told for true." Many of the things normally included under the heading of "urban legend" don't fit all these criteria. Some are rumors, which are unverified non-narrative reports, perhaps true, perhaps not (e.g., "You can get AIDS from a mosquito bite"). Some are passed on more often through written than oral routes, so are not really folklore at all (like most conspiracy theories). Some are hoaxes (deliberate misrepresentations), most of which are written rather than oral (e.g., if you open an e-mail with "Good Times" in the subject line, a virus will erase your hard drive). That brings us to cyberlore, faxlore, and xeroxlore, the transmission of dubious facts by copying, cutting-and-pasting or forwarding of a text without change. This essentially halts the evolution of the text that is the hallmark of true folklore (including a legend, as that term is defined by folklorists).

Are urban legends necessarily false? It depends on whom you ask. Take the "Unsolvable Math Problem"--a student solves a problem he sees on the blackboard in class, thinking it's homework, when actually it's a famous example of an unsolved problem. The story turned out to be based on the real experience of George Dantzig while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Many professional folklorists would insist this isn't an urban legend because it's true, except perhaps in the details--legends, including urban legends, are false by definition; if a story like this is true, it's a sort of anecdote. 

Folklorists aren't always consistent in using the term legend, though. Richard Dorson found what he thought was the real-life origin of the "Death Car" (in which an automobile is sold for cheap because the previous owner died and decomposed in it, and it's pervaded with the stench of death). Yet he continued to call the story a legend despite believing it was true. 

Today most people who use the phrase urban legend aren't folklorists, and most folklorists avoid the term in their professional writing. Most non-professional aficionados of urban legends would say that urban legends aren't a subset of legends as that word is strictly defined. Rather the term is an omnibus classification that includes certain legends, anecdotes, rumors, hoaxes, cyberlore, xeroxlore, and so on. Some of these wild stories turn out to be true. That's the official position of the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban, commonly known as AFU. 

So whether an urban legend can be true or not depends on what definition you use. The difficulty arises from the unfortunate choice of "urban legend." Too bad there's little chance of a more accurate term displacing it at this late date. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to walk the dog--he's licking my hand begging to go out. Wait a second, I don't have a d

Further reading:

Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2001) and The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story (2000) by Jan Harold Brunvand

American Folklore (1959) by Richard M. Dorson

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