April 19, 2004

Cool Word of the Day: Fakelore

Posted by Ed

In a review for The Village Voice, J. Hoberman declares that Kill Bill, Volume Two "is full of flashbacks and fakelore, kung-fu catfights and tacky rear-screen projection, not to mention the sort of pranks that would have had a '70s 42nd Street audience bellowing expletives in delight." One of these days--perhaps even this afternoon--I'll describe my own reaction to Quentin Tarantino's latest film, but for now, I wanted to comment on Hoberman's use of the term fakelore, which I'm now officially designating as the cool word of the day.

I first came across the word fakelore three years ago, when I read Frank Miller's fascinating book Folklore for Stalin. Miller describes how Soviet writers of the Stalin era built on the style and form of traditional works like the epic poem and the ritual lament to write works that resembled folklore, and were presented to the public as the genuine product of the people, but that were really manifestations of the Stalinist cult of the individual; he termed these cultural products "pseudofolklore" or "fakelore." A paper I just found online, "Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children's Literature," uses a similar definition of the term:

Folklorists have been complaining for generations about what Dorson (1950; 1976) bluntly called "fakelore": the representation of materials written by professional authors as reproductions of the oral traditions of historical and ethnic communities. Some fakelore is total fabrication, utterly unconnected to any actual folklore source-the Paul Bunyan stories found in schoolbooks were never told by lumberjacks, Pecos Bill was not a cowboy hero, and all those cutesy "Indian" origin legends were created by nineteenth and twentieth-century romantics. Other fakelore caters loose adaptations to contemporary literary and moral fashions, "processed folk" as I like to call it (Singer 1988). In either case, the published material, however much it claims ancestry in a particular "folk" community, is written to appeal to the tastes and desires of publishers, promoters, and readers, instead of to reflect the narrative and intellectual sensibilities of real "folk."

Hoberman's use of the term doesn't exactly fit my own sense of what it means. Unfortunately, however, the word doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any of the dictionaries I have lying around my apartment. A quick google search comes up with a number of interesting uses of the term, beyond the one cited above:

  • An article from the Lafayette, Louisiana, Advertiser discusses the "fakelore" associated with Tabasco sauce.
  • A Clemson University press release describes the folklore and fakelore of Christmas: "Some Christmas stories, like 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' which was invented by an advertising executive at Montgomery Ward in 1939, fall into the category of 'fakelore' to distinguish them from true folklore, the origins of which cannot be precisely traced," Rollin said. "But, they have become folklore because we embrace them and share them as true folklore and as culture."
  • An entry in the online Wilson's Almanac discusses the "fakelore" associated with the phrase "blue moon."
  • Another online article looks at the spread of inauthentic Inuit art, or fakelore.

I get the sense that there's no one definition of fakelore that's commonly agreed on by everyone. There's the anthropological term, apparently first used by Richard Mercer Dorson and later picked up by Frank Miller. Beyond that, there's a lot of confusion: some sources treat the word almost as a synonym for "myth" (in a non-technical sense) or "urban legend," and others even treat it as a concrete thing (fake art.) Right off, I'm not sure what Hoberman meant by the term, even after seeing the movie--and I'm not thrilled by the use of the word to describe the legends surrounding Tabasco sauce. (They seem to assume that true stories about the sauce's origins qualift as folklore, and that fakelore fails to become folklore if it isn't true.)

Whatever it means, fakelore is a cool word. I'm curious if other people are familiar with its use in a non-academic setting.

Posted by Ed at April 19, 2004 01:19 PM

I suspect that the Village Voice reviewer was referring to the use of the Chinese martial arts folklore figure Pai Mei.

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Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM

yeah, it is a really cool word. ive never heard it before this either. actually, the first place i heard it was in reading about dr. seuss's book "the lorax" which was anti-logging. supposedly the loggin industry put out a book of their own 20 years later called "truax" to counter seuss's book, and distributed 400,000 copies to elementary schools along with lesson plans to help change public perception. you can view the book online too. its weird.

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