#FolkloreThursday: Where Does the Term “Folklore” Come From?

Where does the term “folklore” even come from? And why does it matter?

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org William John Thoms. Photograph. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, CC License from Wikimedia.

First, the word folklore is only about two and a half centuries old. The study of folklore goes even further back, with the German word Volkskunde being coined in 1782 (and the Grimm brothers played a large role in initiating folklore collection in the early 1800s too).

Back then, people who studied the types of cultural materials we would classify as folklore today called it “popular antiquities.” That phrase does help capture some of the same meanings of folklore, in that folklore is generally “popular” in the sense of being widely found among the groups in which it circulates… but “antiquities” is pretty off-base, since folklore isn’t just old stuff. New traditions arise all the time.

In 1846, the British scholar William Thoms coined the word “folklore” in a letter to the journal Athenaeum. From there, it caught on and became the standard term for both the cultural material itself and the field of academic study.

Alan Dundes suggests of Thoms that

his insistence that the word “folklore” had an English origin is itself noteworthy as it reflects the nationalistic sentiment so often associated with folklore studies. Indeed, the supposed initial impetus for Thoms to suggest the term “folklore” came from a wish to substitue “a good Saxon compound” for the more Latinate “Popular Antiquities.” (9-10)

Because the history of folklore studies is deeply entwined with nationalism (a topic for a separate post, perhaps?) it’s important to recognize the origins of the word that has become emblematic of the academic study of folklore in the English-speaking world. This also matters because of the triviality barrier, and the “oh that’s just folklore” colloquial meaning of the word that bothers folklorists everywhere.

In sum, folklore studies has a long history – especially in its treatment of narrative and the body – and knowing where the word comes from is one step in understanding that history.

References:

Dundes, Alan, ed. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1999.

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