The Semantics of Myth

For over a decade now, I’ve been fighting a one-woman campaign against the colloquial use of the term myth to mean “a commonly believed but false notion.” The crusade has not gone especially well. Even other folklorists use myth in this way, as in the derisive, “That’s just a myth,” to refer to, for instance, the belief that uncooked eggs can stand on end at the equinox (see also: The West Wing). And one needs hardly try at all to find examples in the media.

My objection, despite what my exasperated friends might think, does not actually stem from mere anal-retentive pretention regarding maligned academic fields, such as the study of mythology (and I don’t mean Campbell). It’s because this particular definition—which is in fact, according to the OED and Merriam-Webster, the second definition—directly denigrates “actual” myths, the people who use, tell, and live them, and—yes—the people who study them. There’s a long history of academics discussing the precise meaning of the word myth, but in the interests of brevity I cite the OED:

1. a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.  (OED 3rd edition, 2003)

Myths—which are, crucially, narratives rather than beliefs or customs—underpin most of the behaviors, ideas, and (for lack of a better word) flavor of the culture in which they operate. I also argue that all cultures, not just “traditional”, “savage”, or “primitive” cultures, operate under the aegis of their own myths, some more visibly than others. In other words, to dismiss myths as the silly products of deluded or gullible people is to offend, in my opinion, every human culture on earth. Not incidentally, it also leads to absurdly ill-informed campaigns like this one:

To be fair: I get why people still use the second definition of myth. We have no other word that means precisely the same thing; there’s no obvious substitute. And even I will concede that saying “a commonly believed misconception” instead of “myth” is an unwieldy solution. Still, I soldier on. Because, as someone close to me likes to say, words matter.

And so do myths.

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