Thursday, December 14, 2006

Urban Legends

One of my favorite stories, up in smoke. The idea that Ring Around The Rosie is actually about the plague – “all fall down” meaning falling over dead? It’s completely untrue. The first written versions of Ring Around Roses show up in the late 1800’s, some with posies and falling down, some not. But the Great Plague was in 1346, and later plagues didn’t have the sneezing part. It is not credible that a little poem would be passed down orally, unchanged for 500 years, then suddenly break into half-a-dozen versions that all get written down for the first time.


We believe so many untrue things, and learned texts have been written to try and understand what types of legends we wish to believe. The wet poodle in the microwave (or worse, the baby)? No evidence it ever happened. The rumor that more women get beaten on Super Bowl Sunday? Unh-unh. Why do we want to think so?

Political figures often come up in the rumors. I won’t encourage their spread by even giving examples, but they usually take the form of a president’s secret. Did you know that Bill Clinton hired a special agent whose only job was to…There was a room in the Nixon White House…George Bush has a secret plan to… Please. If it were that much of a secret, how did it filter down to you and me? The political legends should give us insight into countries without a free press, however. In Romania, where the only alternative to the government press was rumor, wild urban legends were news, and are still believed years later. American soldiers in Iraq are frequently told the most amazing news by locals. “Not here, but in Mosul… in Basra… My cousin saw it himself.” What experience do they have with real news?

We should not hold their credulity in contempt. Even though there are no recorded cases of anyone ever poisoning Halloween candy, every year warnings go out, hospitals make their x-rays available, and parents confiscate everything that does not come pre-wrapped. Even though there are no incidents of fires in elementary schools stemming from paper decorations on the walls, policy persists in limiting the amount of paper and how it is to be secured.

We have a peculiar fascination with legends about food. Kentucky Fried Rat, thumbs in the deli sandwiches, pop rocks exploding in your stomach – seldom even partly true. Food that comes from unknown places or strange hands has frightened us for centuries, if Sleeping Beauty is any clue. Perhaps this is behind much of the current furor about genetically modified foods. Rumors about dire plots being hatched in large, faceless corporations also have a long shelf life. Proctor and Gamble has been fighting baseless accusations of satanic involvement for twenty years, and people still believe Nieman-Marcus charged $250 for a cookie recipe.

The internet has given rise to a whole new family of urban legends. Lists of the origin of phrases circulate from time-to-time, usually identified to the 1500’s, or “Shakespeare’s time” or “the Middle Ages.” Supposed explanations of sleep tight, wet your whistle, and raining cats and dogs are often on that list. They are almost all bogus. Only the disputed origin of mind your p’s and q’s is true. (Typeset letters versus pints and quarts. Unknown). We are also entranced by things which, if true, could adversely affect many people. The LSD tatoos, the gang initiation of killing those who flash their lights, the strange viruses we should warn our mailing list about… we know they are probably untrue, but what if it is? Think how many people would be affected. Why take a chance?

Take a chance. Microsoft is not going to give you money, and there is no dying child in England collecting postcards. Distraught parents of missing children start with the police, not the internet; you can check if it’s true through legitimate channels.

To check if something is an urban legend, the best site is But I am going to be really bummed if that story about the secret formula for Coke isn’t true.


Anonymous said...

While the common urban legends are indeed fun, the "superbowl wifebeating" meme was an organized propaganda effort by a group of feminists who issued false press releases that were never fact checked until much later. Very much more than a rumor out of control.

Anonymous said...

And then sometimes legend gets overtaken by new events. The microwaved baby may have been urban legend in the past, but no longer:

Death penalty sought in baby's microwave death

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, the bulletin board in my dorm caught fire. No more decorations after that. True story. Not urban legend.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, that's a school then, even if it's not an elementary school at Christmas.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Come to think of it, hall mates lit our Christmas decorations on fire my freshamn year, because it was now April. Which, combined with Michael's comment, may suggest that at college, all bets are off.