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1846; folk + lorecoined by English scholar and antiquary William John Thoms (1803–85)
See also: Research, Folklore Figures (gremlins, witches, etc.)

Myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator).

It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similies (e.g., as blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (e.g., nicknames and place names).

Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (to bounce the children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be "it" in games), and nursery rhymes.

Christmas photo

The list of folklore forms also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn and fence types; street vendors' cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands.

There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps or sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday).


Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions–the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), andsay (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics). As these examples indicate, in most instances there is no hard-and-fast separation of these categories, whether in everyday life or in folklorists’ work.

The word "folklore” names an enormous and deeply significant dimension of culture. Considering how large and complex this subject is, it is no wonder that folklorists define and describe folklore in so many different ways. Try asking dance historians for a definition of "dance,” for instance, or anthropologists for a definition of "culture.” No one definition will suffice–nor should it.

In part, this is also because particular folklorists emphasize particular parts or characteristics of the world of folklore as a result of their own work, their own interests, or the particular audience they’re trying to reach. And for folklorists, as for the members of any group who share a strong interest, disagreeing with one another is part of the work–and the enjoyment–of the field, and is one of the best ways to learn.

But to begin, below we have cited several folklorists’ definitions and descriptions of folklore, given in the order in which they were written and published. (One of them uses the word "folklife” instead, which American folklorists, following their European colleagues, have used more frequently of late.) None of these definitions answers every question by itself, and certainly none of them is the American Folklore Society’s official definition (we don’t have one), but each offers a good place to start. From time to time we’ll add the views of other folklorists to this page.

One thing you’ll note about these definitions and descriptions is that they challenge the notion of folklore as something that is simply "old,” "old-fashioned,” "exotic,” "rural,” "peasant,” "uneducated,” "untrue,” or "dying out.” Though folklore connects people to their past, it is a central part of life in the present, and is at the heart of all cultures–including our own–throughout the world.

For more information about folklore and about what folklorists do, please see the other sections of this "About Folklore” chapter, as well as the other chapters of this AFSNet web site.

And if you have further questions about folklore or folklorists’ work, we invite you to contact the university folklore program or public folklore organization closest to you, or the American Folklore Society’s office.

Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and their Traditions. Pp. 1-2. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005.

Folklore is many things, and it’s almost impossible to define succinctly. It’s both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It’s also quilts, Boy Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, chian letters, nicknames, holiday food… and many other things you might or might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs and rural villages, in families, work groups and dormitories. Folklore is present in many kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written texts), customary (behaviors, rituals) or material (physical objects). It involves values, traditions, ways of thinking and behaving. It’s about art. It’s about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn who we are and how to make meaning in the world around us. [Pages 1-2]

Dorothy Noyes.  Folklore. In 
The Social Science Encyclopedia. 3rd edition. Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, eds. Pp. 375-378. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Folklore is a metacultural category used to mark certain genres and practices within modern societies as being not modern. By extension, the word refers to the study of such materials. More specific definitions place folklore on the far side of the various epistemological, aesthetic and technological binary oppositions that distinguish the modern from its presumptive contraries. Folklore therefore typically evokes both repudiation and nostalgia. [Page 375]

Barbro Klein. Folklore. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 8. Pp. 5711-5715. New York: Elsevier, 2001.

'Folklore' has four basic meanings. First, it denotes oral narration, rituals, crafts, and other forms of vernacular expressive culture. Second, folklore, or ‘folkloristics,’ names an academic discipline devoted to the study of such phenomena. Third, in everyday usage, folklore sometimes describes colorful ‘folkloric’ phenomena linked to the music, tourist, and fashion industries. Fourth, like myth, folklore can mean falsehood. [P. 5711]

Mary Hufford. American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures. Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1991.

What is folklife? Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, folklife is often hidden in full view, lodged in the various ways we have of discovering and expressing who we are and how we fit into the world. Folklife is reflected in the names we bear from birth, invoking affinities with saints, ancestors, or cultural heroes. Folklife is the secret languages of children, the codenames of CBoperators, and the working slang of watermen and doctors. It is the shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around kitchen tables or parables told from pulpits. It is the African American rhythms embedded in gospel hymns, bluegrass music, and hip hop, and the Lakota flutist rendering anew his people’s ancient courtship songs.

Folklife is the sung parodies of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the variety of ways there are to skin a muskrat, preserve string beans, or join two pieces of wood. Folklife is the society welcoming new members at bris and christening, and keeping the dead incorporated on All Saints Day. It is the marking of the Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the Persian New Year at Noruz. It is the evolution of vaqueros into buckaroos, and the riderless horse, its stirrups backward, in the funeral processions of high military commanders.

Folklife is the thundering of foxhunters across the rolling Rappahannock countryside and the listening of hilltoppers to hounds crying fox in the Tennessee mountains. It is the twirling of lariats at western rodeos, and the spinning of double-dutch jumpropes in West Philadelphia. It is scattered across the landscape in Finnish saunas and Italian vineyards; engraved in the split-rail boundaries of Appalachian "hollers” and the stone fences around Catskill "cloves”; scrawled on urban streetscapes by graffiti artists; and projected onto skylines by the tapering steeples of churches, mosques, and temples.

Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions. Universal, diverse, and enduring, it enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.

Henry Glassie. The Spirit of Folk Art. New York: Abrams, 1989.

"Folklore,” though coined as recently as 1846, is the old word, the parental concept to the adjective "folk.” Customarily folklorists refer to the host of published definitions, add their own, and then get on with their work, leaving the impression that definitions of folklore are as numberless as insects. But all the definitions bring into dynamic association the ideas of individual creativity and collective order.

Folklore is traditional. Its center holds. Changes are slow and steady. Folklore is variable. The tradition remains wholly within the control of its practitioners. It is theirs to remember, change, or forget. Answering the needs of the collective for continuity and of the individual for active participation, folklore…is that which is at once traditional and variable.

William A. Wilson. The Deeper Necessity: Folklore and the Humanities. Journal of American Folklore101:400, 1988.

Surely no other discipline is more concerned with linking us to the cultural heritage from the past than is folklore; no other discipline is more concerned with revealing the interrelationships of different cultural expressions than is folklore; and no other discipline is so concerned …with discovering what it is to be human. It is this attempt to discover the basis of our common humanity, the imperatives of our human existence, that puts folklore study at the very center of humanistic study.

Barre Toelken. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Tradition [means] not some static, immutable force from the past, but those pre-existing culture-specific materials and options that bear upon the performer more heavily than do his or her own personal tastes and talents. We recognize in the use of tradition that such matters as content and style have been for the most part passed on but not invented by the performer. 

Dynamic recognizes, on the other hand, that in the processing of these contents and styles in performance, the artist’s own unique talents of inventiveness within the tradition are highly valued and are expected to operate strongly. Time and space dimensions remind us that the resulting variations may spread geographically with great rapidity (as jokes do) as well as down through time (good luck beliefs). Folklore is made up of informal expressions passed around long enough to have become recurrent in form and context, but changeable in performance.

…modern American folklorists do not limit their attention to the rural, quaint, or "backward" elements of the culture. Rather, they will study and discuss any expressive phenomena–urban or rural–that seem to act like other previously recognized folk traditions. This has led to the development of a field of inquiry with few formal boundaries, one with lots of feel but little definition, one both engaging and frustrating.

Jan Brunvand. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2nd edition. New York: W.W.Norton, 1978.
Folklore comprises the unrecorded traditions of a people; it includes both the form and content of these traditions and their style or technique of communication from person to person.

Folklore is the traditional, unofficial, non-institutional part of culture. It encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional forms by word of mouth or by customary examples.

Edward D. Ives. Joe Scott, the Woodsman-Songmaker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
No song, no performance, no act of creation can be properly understood apart from the culture or subculture in which it is found and of which it is a part; nor should any "work of art” be looked on as a thing in itself apart from the continuum of creation-consumption.

Dell Hymes. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
[Folklore study is] the study of communicative behavior with an esthetic, expressive, or stylistic dimension.

Dan Ben-Amos. Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context, in Américo Paredes and Richard Bauman, eds. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press for the American Folklore Society, 1972.
…folklore is artistic communication in small groups.

Other links

Folklore and folklife (including traditional arts, belief, traditional ways of work and leisure, adornment and celebrations) are cultural ways in which a group maintains and passes on a shared way of life. 

This “group identity” may be defined by age, gender, ethnicity, avocation, region, occupation, religion, socioeconomic niche, or any other basis of association. As New York folklorist Ben Botkin wrote in 1938,
Every group bound together or by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even "literary," but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole.
These traditional forms of knowledge are learned informally within a one-to-one or small group exchange, through performance, or by example. In all cases, folklore and folklife are learned and perpetuated within the context of the "group," for it is the shared experience which shapes and gives meaning to the exchange.

—Ellen McHale, "Fundamentals of Folklore," in John Suter, ed., Working with Folk Materials in New York State: A Manual for Folklorists and Archivists (Ithaca, NY: New York Folklore Society, 1994), p. 2.1

While folklore is private and intimately shared by groups in informal settings, it is also the most public of activities when used by groups to symbolize their identity to themselves and others.

—Robert Baron and Nicholas Spitzer, Public Folklore (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp.1-2.

For an individual family, folklore is its creative expression of a common past. As raw experiences are transformed into family stories, expressions, and photos, they are codified in forms which can be easily recalled, retold, and enjoyed. Their drama and beauty are heightened, and the family’s past becomes accessible as it is reshaped according to its needs and desires.

—Steve Zeitlin, A Celebration of American Family Folklore (Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon Press, 1982), p. 2.

Folklore helps us to form and express identity in the midst of an always complex, sometimes confusing social context, in which our sense of who we are is frequently questioned and challenged.

—Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens, Living Folklore (2005)

Folklore, like any other discipline, has no justification except as it enables us to better understand ourselves and others.

—Roger D. Abrahams, Journal of American Folklore81: 157 (1968).

Photo of Dan Hill
Dan Hill, Cayuga flute maker and player and silversmith, Tuscarora Reservation. Photo by Martha Cooper. See Music and Art to Remember.

For those who find brief definitions helpful, there is no dearth of contemporary formulations: “Materials...that circulate traditionally among members of any group in different versions, whether in oral form or by means of customary example” (Brunvand, in The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 1968); “The hidden submerged culture lying behind the shadow of official civilization” (Dorson, in Folklore Forum1, 1968); “Artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos, in Journal of American Folklore, 1971); “Communicative processes [and] forms ... which evidence continuities and consistencies in human thought and behavior through time or space” (Georges, in Sound Archives: A Guide to Their Establishment and Development, 1983)

—Elliott Oring, “On the Concepts of Folklore,” in Oring, ed. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986), p. 17. 

This book is founded on the simple assumption that there must be some element all folklore has in common (else we could not lump it all together). No doubt an astute student could name several possible unifying characteristics, but I have chosen one: All folklore participates in a distinctive, dynamic process (p.10)

Folklore comes early and stays late in the lives of all of us. In spite of the combined forces of technology, science, television, religion, urbanization, and creeping literacy, we prefer our close personal associations as the basis for learning about life and transmitting important observations and expressions. (p.25)

Actually, folklore is a word very much like culture; it represents a tremendous spectrum of human expression that can be studied in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Its primary characteristic is that its ingredients seem to come directly from dynamic interactions among human beings in communal-traditional performance contexts rather than through the rigid lines and fossilized structures of technical instruction or bureaucratized education, or through the relatively stable channels of the classical traditions. (p.28-29)

—Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979)

Folk arts are traditional cultural expressions through which a group maintains and passes on its shared way of life. They express a group’s sense of beauty, identity and values. Folk arts are usually learned informally through performance, by example or in oral tradition among families, friends, neighbors and co-workers rather than through formal education. A living cultural heritage, folk arts link the past and present. Never static, folk arts change as they are adapted to new circumstances while they maintain their traditional qualities.

Folk traditions are practiced by groups sharing a common identity on the basis of such factors as ethnicity, region, occupation, age and religion. They include many kinds of cultural expression—performing traditions in music, dance and drama, traditional storytelling and other verbal arts, festivals, traditional crafts, visual arts, architecture, the adornment and transformation of the built environment and other forms of material folk culture.

—New York State Council on the Arts Application Guidelines, 1994, p.51. 

The folk arts and crafts are those that are learned as part of the lifestyle of a community whose members share identity based upon ethnic origin, religion, occupation, or geographical region. Highly varied, these traditions are shaped by the aesthetics and values of the community and are passed from generation to generation. Some are fleeting—the decorative mehendi painted on a Rajastani Indian bride’s hands before her wedding, the Karpathian Greek mandinathes, composed and sung for the funeral of a friend. Others are enduring—a finely craftedcuatro, the ten-stringed guitar that is the hallmark of Puerto Rican jibaro music; a Seabright skiff used by Monmouth County lifeguards. Some are for work—the rhythmic chanteys sung by menhaden boat crews pulling nets heavy with fish—and others are for play—wooden dradels spun to win Channukah treats. Some are part of festival—West African-derived Trinidadian stilt dances performed for Carnival, Ukrainian pysanky painted with ancient symbols of life for Easter. Others are for daily life—the strip quilts made by African-American women; the brightly colored grape baskets woven by Palestinian women.Splint and sweetgrass basket from Akwesasne
Splint and sweetgrass basket from Akwesasne. Photograph courtesy of Traditional Arts of Upstate New York.See Iroquois Basketry Thrives: Report on a NYFS Mentoring Project.

These arts are practiced as part of community life, often playing an important role in events such as work sessions, holy days and holidays, festivals, and life cycle rituals. Folk artists are the practioners who learn these arts in those community contexts by watching, practicing, and learning from other community members. While they consider it important to maintain traditional forms and standards in their work, folk artists also bring their own individual touches to their arts. Their excellence and traditionality is evaluated by community members on the basis of shared standards.

—New Jersey State Council on the Arts Guidelines, 1995-96

Carved Celtic Cross
Celtic cross created by woodcarver, Peter Teresco. Read about Peter’s art in the NYFS gallery, New York Traditions.
In 1976, as the United States celebrated its Bicentennial, the U.S. Congress passed the American Folklife Preservation Act (P.L. 94-201). In writing the legislation, Congress had to define folklife. Here is what the law says:

"American folklife means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction."

—Mary Hufford, American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures(Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1991), p.3.

The folk and traditional arts have grown through time within the many groups that make up any nation—groups that share the same ethnic heritage, language, occupation, religion, or geographic area.

The homegrown traditional artistic activities of such groups are often called folk or traditional arts, and they serve both to identify and to symbolize the group that originated them. Pueblo pottery, Appalachian fiddling, Hawaiian hula, cowboy poetry, African-American Delta blues, Lithuanian weaving, Hmong needlework, and Texas-Mexican polkas are examples. They enliven the particular regions of the nation where they flourish and attest to the creative genius of their practioners.

—National Endowment for the Arts Application Guidelines for Fiscal Years 1995 and 1996, Folk and Traditional Arts, p.5.
Photo of Pinto Guira
Francisco Javier Durán García, known as Pinto Güira, creates his namesake instruments in his Corona, Queens, basement workshop. © 2002 by Sydney Hutchinson. See Pinto Güira and His Magic Bullet.

Art for Community’s Sake [one component of a larger folk arts exhibit] addresses how folk artists and their communities look at themselves. In the worlds of most artists, work is measured by its purpose—how it will serve the artist, his or her family, or the life of the community—and by its worth—not necessarily in money, but as an expression of the group’s values and tastes. While the values explored in the exhibit are not mutually exclusive, they do represent various "windows" through which we can examine groups and individual artists who represent them. These values include:
  • Keeping Traditions Alive: Some artists and their communities place high value on adhering to family or group traditions, preserving them—and the way of life they represent—for the next generation. The processes, tools, materials, designs, motifs, as well as functions, are closely followed. As time passes, some changes may occur, but the pursuit of tradition as a symbol remains important.

  • Making it Useful: Some artists and their communities place high value on the usefulness of the objects they create. The design, materials, and execution all contribute to its function, an important aspect of the "aesthetic" in such things as folk furniture, utensils, and crafts. The look of durability and the object’s ability to stand up to its intended use are important goals of the artist.

  • Keeping Connected: Reinforcing a close identification with a group to which they currently belong is the ambition of many folk artists. They use forms, designs, colors, and motifs which clearly associate them and their work to others with a shared heritage. They may create objects for use by members of the group or to sustain outsiders' views of the group and its traditions.

  • Re-creating Memories: An artist’s ability to recreate memories of shared group experiences is often personal but highly desired and encouraged by his or her group. Great emphasis is placed on precise detail and the object's ability to capture a complete scene or event.

  • Sustaining the Spirit: Some artists place great value on objects that are used as integral parts of religious ritual or that hold special religious meaning for the audience. In creating these objects, the artists choose forms and images that are clearly associated with particular religious traditions.

  • Being Creative: The ability to innovate within tradition is an attribute strongly admired in the shared group expressions of some folk communities. An artist may experiment with forms, materials, and designs in response either to personal choices or to changing cultural influences in his or her life. Resourceful use of found or recycled materials is a challenge many contemporary folk artists relish.
—Varick Chittenden, Exhibit Curator. From the brochure of the folk arts exhibition, Out of the Ordinaryproduced by Gallery Association of New York State (1995).

In sum, folklore is artistic communication in small groups."Dan Ben-Amos