On "why is a modern folktale called an urban legend?"

A very minor comment (or two) about bibliophage’s fine answer to “why is a modern folktale called an urban legend?”

bibliophage writes,

Dale, who published one of the earliest compilations of contemporary legends (or “whale-tumour stories,” as he dubbed them, with the hyphen in place), can indeed also be credited with coining the ever-useful “foaf,” an acronym for “friend of a friend.” (“Foaf” is soon to be included in the OED.)

He’d be the first to tell you, though, that he never came up with “foaftale” (or “FOAFTale,” for that matter). As he wondered in a speech he delivered at the ISCLR’s annual conference on contemporary legends, held at Sheffield in 2002,

(By the way, urban-legends fans who’ve not already read his The Tumour in the Whale ought to do so. It’s followed by It’s True … It Happened to a Friend [London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1984]. And he’s got another waiting to be published.)

I haven’t heard whether Rodney ever discovered the originator of “foaftale,” but I suppose it’s possible that Paul Smith – known for his own contributions to the field of contemporary folklore – coined the term, since he was the first editor of the ISCLR’s FoafTale News, which started publication in September, 1985.

Finally, a thought or two about “legend” and truth. Some folklorists get around the prickly issue about truthfulness and untruthfulness and “the legend” by maintaining that what’s important about the legend (as a folkloric term) is not whether it’s actually based in truth (either largely or in small measure or not at all), but whether the teller of the legend believes in its truthfulness and tells it as true. On the other hand, folklorist Linda Dégh concludes (after 74 pages of debate) that “[t]he legend is a legend once it entertains debate about belief. Short or long, complete or rudimentary, local or global, supernatural, horrible, mysterious, or grotesque, about one’s own or someone else’s experience, the sound of contrary opinions is what makes a legend a legend.” (For more, see Dégh’s “Is There a Definition for a Legend?,” pp. 23-97, in her Legend and Belief [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001].)

– Tammi Terrell

bib. Thanks. Another great report. While I thought I knew a lot about UL’s(that’s how I came to the SDMB, originally), your research(and humor) taught me a lot.

Tammi Terrell It’s nice to have such well-researched additions from a specialist. Not only well-researched, but well-written.

–Say, have you considered writing an article or two for the SD? :slight_smile:

I noticed that you’ve posted twice this year. Assuming you don’t want to break your 2002 record of posting three times, should we hold our breaths until next year?

Can either of you suggest to me just when the concept of FOAF arose? I don’t mean the acronym, but the idea that rumors came from a “friend of a friend.”

I read a newspaper article from 1924 where poor Gloria Swanson, the actress, was plagued by rumors that she had died, and a replacement actress was doing her roles. The exact words in the article were

As a point of interest, and perhaps for further research, there was evidently a song from the first decade of the twentieth century titled “I’m a Friend of a Friend of Frohman,” about an elusive miliionaire producer named Charles Frohman. Frohman was a man of mystery, who never allowed himself to be photographed, or was rarely even seen in public.

I wonder if this either was the origin of the phrase, or at least helped to popularize it.

Since you both have done more recently on the topic, I appeal to you for help.

(Or, I may not appeal to you, but would like your help in any case) :smiley:

As appealing as you are, samclem, that buttering-up won’t work: you’re definitely still on your own when it comes to “asparagus-scented pee” research.

I do need to amend something I wrote earlier, though: it seems that Rodney Dale himself won’t even take credit for coining “whale-tumour story.”

His prologue to The Tumour in the Whale begins with his recounting of a conversation with George Melly, his friend,

I suppose we can say, then, that Dale’s responsible for popularizing the expression, but – according to Dale’s telling, at least – it seems that a friend (or perhaps even a friend of that friend) deserves credit for “whale-tumour story.”

Getting back to your interesting question, though, what can we say about the phrase “friend of a friend” as it applies to oral transmission?

While we wait for bibliophage and others, of course, to weigh in here, I’ll see if I can collect my thoughts enough to merit setting a new personal record for loquacity.

– Tammi Terrell

I see that I did overstate Dale’s contributions to the two terms. Thanks for the clarification, Tammi. I haven’t actually read Dale’s books. I did check the catalogs of all four of the libraries I frequent, but no luck. I guess his popularity hasn’t jumped the Atlantic. I can get the report updated to include your information.

I will definitely read Dégh’s book, which seems to be more readily available. Anyone who can write a 74-page definition of a single word is my kind of writer. I almost wish I were joking, but I’m not.

Sam, I don’t know where “friend of a friend” as a source of rumors came from, but I do know that it was a sort of password on the underground railroad before the Civil War. A runaway, if he arrived at a station unaccompanied, would say “A friend of a friend sent me” or “I’m a friend of a friend.”

If it’s true that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” then a “friend of a friend” would also be an “enemy of my enemy’s enemy’s enemy;” that is, a “foaf” is also an “eomeee.” Feel free to submit this one to the OED.

But, then, I guess that sounds like a coyote with hemorrhoids or something, so maybe we should just leave the OED out of it.

One point I’d like to make here. It is common practice in certain Internet fora, such as Usenet, to use FOAF when what is really meant is “I” in cases where it might be dangerous or unwise to publicly admit you are referring to yourself. For example, in alt.drugs.* someone might post “Last week a FOAF smoked some crack, and experienced these symptoms…”. The person may be describing what happened to them after smoking crack, but don’t want to confess to using an illegal drug.

Am I the only one who felt a bit teased by part of bibliophage’s report? :wink:

I do not currently have access to any of Brunvand’s books; it may take a while to get a response if I submit this phrase to William Safire; and I’d much rather ask a question here than go to the library, so: would someone please explain “dead catters?” :smiley:

And in a serendipitous news report from yesterday from several “reputable” news sources sources have reported A Genuine Loaded Dog/Animal’s Revenge Story.

A news search for “burning bunny” will point to numerous links.
Hmmmmm!!! What do ya think?

A large proportion of ULs seem to feature dead or dying felines. That’s all.

Up until now, I didn’t think of ULs when I saw SDMB member The Loaded Dog’s screen name. I don’t remember seeing him own up in any of those “How’d you get your username?” threads, but I probably didn’t read them all.

Here’s a representative sampling of dead catters:

  1. “The Dead Cat in the Package,” in which a thief steals a package only to discover it contains the corpse of a cat being transported for disposal
  2. “The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party,” in which partygoers have to have their stomachs pumped when a cat who ate the same salmon they did turns up dead. Too late, they learn that the cat died of some other cause.
  3. “The Bungled Rescue of the Cat,” in a cat is rescued from a tree by firemen only to be run over by the fire truck as it pulls out.
  4. “Why there are no Cats in [insert town name here]”: It’s because those damned [insert despised nationality here] immigrants are eating them as rabbit substitutes.

The screen name itself actually comes from the title of a Victorian-era short story by Australian writer Henry Lawson. The story is quite famous in Australia and known by most schoolchildren. and is indeed about a loaded dog of the urban legend type, but it’s not an urban legend itself since it was never intended to be believed true. So really the screen name isn’t associated with urban legends except in the sense that presumably the original published short story was a re-telling of a bush yarn, or what we might now call an urban legend.

Thanks, Blake, for clearing that up. What the Aussies call bush yarns are called tall tales over here, and what we call bush yarns over here are rather political. :stuck_out_tongue:

See! Now, that was PERFECTLY OK political humor. Thanks. :slight_smile: