Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 20: Urban Legends Day

This day is purported by some to be the day that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin died, but don't believe it. Although all of three of these celebrities shared a background of drug use and rock ‘n roll, they each died on a separate day other than 4/20.

The date and number 420 has somehow evolved to connote drug use, and there are a number of stories related to why, such as the supposed common death date of the trio of dead rock starts alluded to earlier. Other stories claim that the Los Angeles police code for marijuana use in progress is 420, or that the number of chemical compounds in marijuana is 420. Both of these claims are untrue. No one knows for certain the origin of these stories, and this brings us to the topic of urban legends.

An urban legend is defined as a story that is "too good to be true" by Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah and the world’s expert in collecting and analyzing urban legends. Brunvand says these stories are told "as if they are really true, attributed to a friend of a friend of a friend." Each time the story is told, the basic elements are the same, but the setting and other minor details change.

For example, a friend might tell you about a story he heard from a friend of a friend that goes like this:

There's this man, see, and he dresses up like a little old lady and accosts unsuspecting women in shopping malls. Usually he waits in the car. When the owner of the car shows up, bags in tow, the stranger pleads fatigue and asks her for a ride home. Then the driver notices her passenger's hairy legs, the wig and, oh yeah, the knife!

This is an example of a story that was reported in the Seattle Times on May 4, 1983. It was reported as a rumor that was running up and down the shores of Puget Sound, and no doubt a story that has appeared in various parts of the country if not the world.

Even in a modern, urbanized society, people still love to tell stories. Maybe this is because we were telling stories long before the invention of writing. Urban legends allow even strangers to connect with each other. Another bonus is that they can be easily reconstructed from the basic elements of the tale and don’t need to be told exactly the same way every time. (1)

Urban legends come under the category of folklore: songs, legends, beliefs, crafts, and customs that are passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. An adjective that is frequently used to describe urban legends is apocryphal. The modern definition according to the American Heritage College Dictionary is ‘of questionable authorship or authenticity.’ The roots of the word are from Greek, meaning secret or hidden. The word was used in Latin to describe the books excluded from the cannon of the Old and New Testaments, and these books are still identified today as the Apocrypha.

Today’s Challenge: Truth or Tabloid?

Test your ability to tell fact from fiction by reading the headlines below. Which are tabloid headlines and which are actual true stories? The headlines are taken from Peter Fenton's book Truth or Tabloid? (2).

1. Roger Ebert Wills Smithsonian His Thumbs

2. Blind Man Acts As Lookout In Failed Robber Attempt

3. Tiger’s Roar Paralyzes People

4. Paleontologists Name New Dinosaur For Rock Star

5. High-Tech Wallet Alerts Spouse When It’s Opened.

6. Shy Kids More Likely To Have Loudmouth Parents

7. Author Advocates Training Children Like Cats!

8. Berserk Brides-To-Be Burglarize Bridal Boutique

9. Laughter Therapist Concludes "Clowns Are Downers"

10. Collector Wears Same T-Shirt For Ten Years

Quote of the Day: The good thing about being young is that you are not experienced enough to know you cannot possibly do the things you are doing. --Gene Brown

Answers: 1. Tabloid 2. True 3. True 4. True 5. Tabloid 6. Tabloid 7. Tabloid 8. True 9. Tabloid 10. Tabloid

1. -
2. - Fenton,Peter. Truth or Tabloid? New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

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