Myth vs. Legend
Though these two terms are often used interchangeably, they have separate and specific meanings to folklorists. Both myths and legends are stories with casts of characters and plotlines followed to their conclusions, yet their core elements are different. Myths are tales about the acts of godlike or supernatural beings and/or magical animals which serve to explain the creation of the world or how certain elements of our world came to be (e.g., how the raccoon got its mask) and take place in the far reaches of time (often expressed as “In the days when the world was new”). By contrast, legends are accounts of purported incidents involving ordinary people in more recent times. Although both types of stories are told as true, they are not necessarily believed to be literal truth by either the tellers or their audiences.
Urban legends are a specific class of legend, differentiated from “ordinary” legends by their being provided and believed as accounts of actual incidents that befell or were witnessed by someone the teller almost knows (e.g., his sister’s hairdresser’s mechanic). These tales are told as true, local, and recent occurrences, and often contain names of places or entities located within the teller’s neighborhood or surrounding region.
Urban legends are narratives which put our fears and concerns into the form of stories or are tales which we use to confirm the rightness of our world view. As cautionary tales they warn us against engaging in risky behaviors by pointing out what has supposedly happened to others who did what we might be tempted to try. Other legends confirm our belief that it’s a big, bad world out there, one awash with crazed killers, lurking terrorists, unscrupulous companies out to make a buck at any cost, and a government that doesn’t give a damn.
Folks commonly equate ‘urban legend’ with ‘false’ (i.e., “Oh, that’s an urban legend!”). Though the vast majority of such tales are pure invention, a handful do turn out to be based on real incidents, and whether or not something actually happened has no bearing on its status as an urban legend. What lifts true tales of this type out of the world of news and into the genre of contemporary lore is the blurring of details and multiplicity of claims that the events happened locally, alterations which take place as the stories are passed through countless hands. Though there might indeed have been an original actual event, it clearly did not happen to as many people or in as many places as the various recountings of it would have us believe.
For further information about the definition of the term, click here.
Ostension is a folkloric term for the process of unwittingly acting out or mimicking the greater part (if not the entirety) of an urban legend that is already part of the body of lore. More simply, if the events described in an urban legend which had been around since 1950 actually did indeed spontaneously play out in real life in 1992, that would be an example of ostension.
For example, author Douglas Adams tells the “packet of biscuits” tale in his 1984 novel, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and has since recounted the anecdote on numerous occasions, claiming it happened to him in 1976 at a station in Cambridge. Yet even if we believe his is a true account (celebrities have been known to star themselves or their close acquaintances in urban legends — the “dead rabbit replaced” tale has been claimed by Johnny Carson of his neighbor, William Shatner of his co-author, and actor Michael Landon and singer Marc Anthony of themselves), his experience only copied a legend that was already in existence, because that same tale had been circulated in Great Britain since at least 1972.
Pseudo-ostension is the act of deliberately acting out an existing urban legend (e.g., children secreting pins in their Halloween treats to throw a scare into the community or pranksters in Pulaski, Virginia, placing syringes in payphone coin return slots in 1999).
We can’t claim credit for having coined this term, nor do we know its actual origin, but we love it nonetheless. Slacktivism is the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without actually getting one’s hands dirty, volunteering any of one’s time, or opening one’s wallet. It’s slacktivism that prompts us to forward appeals for business cards on behalf of a dying child intent upon having his name recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records or exhortations to others to continue circulating a particular e-mail because some big company has supposedly promised that every forward will generate monies for the care of a languishing tot. Likewise, it’s slacktivism that prompts us to want to join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often. Slacktivism comes in many forms, but its defining characteristic is its central theme of doing good with little or no effort on the part of the person inspired to participate, through the mechanisms of forwarding, exhorting, collecting, or e-signing.
Our essay on the ineffectiveness of Internet petitions delves further into the topic.
‘Malware’ is a term used to refer to a variety of forms of hostile or intrusive programs, web sites, and online activities, including computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, ransomware, spyware, adware, scareware, and false information deliberately created and spread for financial gain.
Glurge is a term specific to snopes.com, coined in 1998. Already in its short lifespan it has reached across the Internet and has appeared in the print media a number of times, and it may well soon make the final breakthrough by appearing in dictionaries as a bona fide entry. The word was invented by Patricia Chapin, a member of the urban legends discussion mailing list run in conjunction with this site. At a loss for words to describe the retching sensation this then-unnamed category of stories subjected her to, she fashioned a word that simultaneously named the genre and described its effect.
Glurge (a term which can be used to describe one story or applied to the genre as a whole) is the body of inspirational tales which conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and which undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering “true stories.” Glurge often contains such heart-tugging elements as sad-eyed puppies, sweet-faced children, angels, dying mothers, or miraculous rescues brought about by prayer. These stories are meant to be parables for modern times but fall far short of the mark. Our Glurge Gallery links to all the glurge any human could stand.
The Snopes were a family of characters weaved throughout the works of Nobel Prize-winning American writer William Faulkner. When David Mikkelson, creator of snopes.com, first came onto the Internet in the late 1980s, he worried even back in those relatively uncrowded days that no one would remember yet another David. He was thus inspired to adopt a nom-de-Net, selecting one that honored those fictional Faulknerian characters, and began signing his newsgroups posts as “snopes.”
Over the years snopes established a fearsome online reputation for his ability to thoroughly research and debunk false claims. When it came time to name our domain, www.snopes.com seemed the obvious choice.
As to how to pronounce “snopes,” the word rhymes with “soaps.”
Trope or Internym
Either term can be employed to describe oddball “middle names” people use in signing articles or online posts. These are a carryover from the days of posting to newsgroups on the Internet where such manner of signoff was customary.
Some favorite tropes can be found on:
Organ Nicked: Vegetable (kidney theft legend).
The Well to Hell (screams of the damned issue from deep hole).
Secret Sauce (HIV-laden semen in restaurant food).