Chapter 1: What Is Folklore?
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1 DOI: 10.7330/9780874219067.c001 Chapter 1 What Is Folklore? So, you’re in a folklore class. Good for you—whatever educational requirement this course is fulfilling for you, I guarantee you’ve picked the best possible way to fulfill it. Perhaps you’re in an Intro to Folklore course, or maybe you’re in a special-topics course: something like Folklore and Literature, Folklore and Film, Folklore and the Internet, or Children’s Folklore. No matter what course it is (and hey—maybe you’re not taking a folklore class at all. Maybe you’re not even a student, in which case, doubly good for you for reading this book when you don’t have to!), you’re going to have to start at the beginning. Unlike in other fields, when it comes to folklore studies, the beginning can sometimes be the most confusing place to start. What is folklore? You’d think this would be an easy question to answer. “Folklore” doesn’t seem like a very complicated idea, does it? I mean, it’s not a rare or unfamiliar word—we use it fairly often in daily life. So if someone asked you what folklore is, you could probably give them an answer, right? Well . . . maybe not. Give it a try and see how it goes. Lots of people answer this question by giving a few examples of stuff they think is folklore. They’ll say something like, “Oh, you know, folklore is old stories and songs from your parents and grandparents” or “Folklore is stuff like superstitions and old wives’ tales” or “It’s like unicorns and sea shanties and quilting—stuff like that.” As you will learn shortly, while these common perceptions of folklore aren’t 100 percent wrong, they’re certainly not 100 What Is Folklore? 2 percent right, either. One of the first things that students of folklore discover is that the word folklore encompasses far more than they ever thought it did. It brings together the expected folktales, myths, and legends, and yet also includes jump-rope rhymes, pranks, jokes, graffiti, songs, emoticons, gestures . . . basically a ton of stuff that often leads to the popular first-year-folklore-­ student mistake of “I get it now—folklore is everything!” This, sadly, is not true. You’ll see by the end of this book that while folklore can likely be connected to almost everything, everything is not, in fact, folklore. Folklorists have spent a fairly ridiculous amount of time trying to succinctly define folklore ever since the word was coined in 18461 by a guy named William Thoms. Thoms, interestingly, used a pseudonym (he chose Ambrose Merton, for some reason) when he proposed the term and revealed himself as the actual source of the term only once he’d determined that people were generally on board with it. He proposed it as “a good Saxon compound” in favor of the then current term popular antiquities. People generally accepted it, and voila!—a whole field of study was born.2 You might be wondering at this point why it has been so hard for folklorists to define this basic Saxon compound. Well, you try to explain what a creation myth, a jump-rope rhyme, a Fourth of July BBQ, and some bathroom graffiti3 have in common, and you’ll find it’s not a terribly easy task, either. Rest assured, though: the field of folklore studies does have a few basic rules that can help to simplify things. In the next few sections, we’re going to uncover these basic concepts from within the murky depths of academia and put them to work to answer the question at hand: “What is folklore?” Folk and Lore To start with, we’ve got a compound word here—folk-lore—and any decent definition will have to account for both parts.4 We’ll start with “folk.” In order to begin to understand what “folk” means, we first need to back up a bit and understand what “culture” is. Why, you ask? Because I said so. Bear with me—it will become clear in a moment. What Is Folklore? 3 As it turns out, in terms of difficulty of definition, “culture” is frustratingly right up there with “folklore.” A common use of the word culture is to think of someone as being “cultured,” as in “enlightened” or “refined”—snooty people attending the opera in fur coats and such—but folklorists (and anthropologists) use the term a bit...


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