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The word “folklore” was first coined by William Thoms in a letter to the Athenaeum in 1846 (Roper 2007). The new word came at a convenient moment for the study of the various “legends,” “customs and popular observances,” and “rhyming charms” that Thoms himself planned to collect and publish. Over the next fifty years, the word spread unevenly in the English-speaking world, and sometimes into other languages, coinciding with a growth in interest among elites in popular cultural traditions of this kind. But when considering “folklore sources,” historians do not have to confine themselves to materials that were called “folklore” by the people who recorded them. Long before Thoms coined the word, there were movements to record popular traditions such as tales, songs, legends, and proverbs (Cocchiara 1981). Nor have folklore sources disappeared since the heyday of the folklorists. It is true that folklore has not achieved the institutional stability and academic respectability of neighboring disciplines, such as anthropology, and that folklore collecting has never recovered from the decline that began in the nineteenth century. But many researchers working with folklore, or as folklorists, today find folklore sources in new places: in fax messages (Preston 1994), internet forums (Howard 2011), or on social media (Peck 2015).
What then, is “folklore” in this expanded definition?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBloomsbury History: Theory and Method
Subtitle of host publicationUsing Primary Sources
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Folklore
  • Anthropology
  • Historic-geographic method
  • Performance studies
  • Folksong
  • Folk tale
  • Folk belief
  • Devolutionary premise
  • Memory
  • Oral history


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