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What is Folklore?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Folklore is a term which refers to the collective oral traditions and beliefs of a culture. It encompasses myths, legends, jokes, proverbs, tall tales, fairy tales, superstition, and of course folktales. All cultures have some form of folklore; some people have made the study of folklore their life's work, and numerous texts by folklorists can be found in bookstores. These books include transcriptions of folk stories as well as analysis of popular myths and traditions and the ways in which folklore impacts modern society.

The term was coined in 1846 by William Thomas, who wanted to come up with a generic term to encompass the rich oral traditions of cultures around the world. “Folklore” is a compound of “folk,” as in common people, and “lore” as in knowledge or traditions. The definition of folklore is quite varied, depending on the academic you discuss it with. In general, to be considered folklore, something has to be passed down orally through multiple generations, whether it be an adage about the rain or a folktale about a popular hero like the American Paul Bunyan.

Folklore and folk beliefs in various cultures are incredibly varied. Various animals, for example, are considered ill omens in some regions of the world while they are welcomed as bringers of luck in other areas. Folk stories are also quite diverse, and they usually integrate natural features of the landscape, whether these features be long, hard winters in Scandinavia or endless sunny days at the equator. A glimpse of a culture's folklore can often reveal interesting things about the people of that culture.

Oral traditions constantly undergo change because of their nature. As stories are repeated, people embellish or alter them, sometimes changing the content to fit with new ideas or the times. As a result, folklore is a constantly expanding and changing body of material, providing a great deal of fodder for people who are interested in oral cultural traditions. Some students of folklore have tracked the changes in the oral traditions they study as part of a larger study of cultural changes and trends; for example, folklore often undergoes major shifts after people meet people from other cultural backgrounds.

When the study of folklore became a more formal discipline, people started writing down folktales, although people like the Brothers Grimm had already gotten a head start on recording their oral traditions on paper. Some museums also have a collection of folk items, along with stories about their provenance. You may have an example of recorded folklore in your own home, and you can probably come up with some examples of classic folklore or folk characters in your own culture.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon328788 — On Apr 05, 2013

Folklore doesn't have to be old! Urban legends that circle the world in minutes via the Internet are still folklore, even though they're not passed on generationally (or even orally). Check out the book "Tradition in the 21st Century," which talks about contemporary understanding of folklore. (Of course, all the good old stuff is still included in folklore studies, too--customs, myths, folktales, etc.)

By winterstar — On Feb 20, 2010

The US has even given one bit of folklore it's very own holiday! Groundhog Day comes from folklore. Although it's not a holiday we get out of school or work for. Still Punxsutawney Phil makes his weather prediction all over the news every Feb 2nd!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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