the creation of the word ‘folklore’


The verb learn, from Old English leornian, is related to German lernen. Both are from a Germanic root from which the noun lore also comes. This last word is related to German Lehre, a noun meaning teachingdoctrineapprenticeship and lesson (i.e. thing learned by experience).

These words are related to English last in the sense of a shoemaker’s model for shaping or repairing a shoe or boot*, from Old English lāstfootstep, track, trace. Of Germanic origin, last is related to Dutch leest, meaning a last, and German Leiste, meaning a strip (of wood, etc.), a trima border.
(* cf.
let the cobbler stick to his last)

From a base meaning to follow a track, these Germanic words are cognate with Latin lira, meaning the earth thrown up between two furrows, a ridge, hence also a furrow.

Apparently, the senses of lore and learn developed from the idea of following a track. The Latin delirare meant to go out of the furrow (the prefix de- meant off, from, away), hence to deviate from a straight line, and to be crazy, deranged, out of one’s wits, to be silly, to dote, rave – cf. the English words delirious and delirium.

The primary meanings of lore, in the late 10th century, were the act of teachingthe condition of being taught, and, chiefly as a religious term, that which is taught, a doctrine or teaching. This gave rise to the phrases to set to lore, meaning to place under instruction, send to school, and atto the lair (the Scottish form of lore), meaning at, to school.

It also came to mean that which is learnedlearningscholarshiperudition. For example, Samuel Butler (1612-80) wrote in his satirical poem Hudibras (1663):

Learned he was in Medc’nal Lore,
For by his side a Pouch he wore
Replete with strange Hermetick Powder,
That Wounds nine miles point-blank would
By skilful Chymist with great cost solder.

And in The Shipwreck, a poem, by a sailor (1762), the poet and lexicographer William Falconer (1732-70) wrote:

What regions now the flying ship surround?
Regions of old through all the world renown’d;
That once the Poet’s theme, the Muses’ boast,
Now lie in ruins; in oblivion lost!
Did they, whose sad distress these lays deplore,
Unskill’d in Grecian or in Roman lore,
Unconscious pass each famous circling shore?

The word came to be applied to the body of traditional facts, anecdotes or beliefs relating to some particular subject, as in animal lore, bird lore, fairy lore, plant lore.

In The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London) of June 1830, a correspondent who wanted “good English words” to be “formed for the awkward and irregular ones frequently borrowed”, suggested that compounds ending in -lore should be substituted for the names of sciences and technologies:

suffix -lore - Gentleman's Magazine - June 1830

Lore means learning, doctrine, &c. therefore
Ornithology, should be birdlore.
Mythology,             —— fablelore.
Osteology,              —— bonelore.
Pathology,              —— painlore.
Physiology,            —— naturelore.
Tactics,                  —— warlore.
Political Economy, —— governlore.
Zoology,                —— animal-lore.
Pneumatics,         —— airlore.
Meteorology,       —— meteorlore.
Geology,               —— earthlore.
Potamology,        —— riverlore.
Philology,            —— wordlore.
Astronomy,         —— starlore.
Agriculture,        —— fieldlore.
Conchology,        —— shell-lore.
Hydrostatics,      —— waterweightlore.
Optics,                —— lightlore;
and so on. The substantives of the persons might be birdloreman, fableloreman, &c.; the adjectives applied to the persons, birdlearned, fablelearned., &c. and those answering to ornithological, mythological, could be birdlorish, fablelorish, &c. in the German manner.

The suggestion was never adopted, though some few words out of the list of those proposed are occasionally used, but not as names of sciences. In German, several compounds of the equivalent lehre are in regular use as names of sciences or departments of study; for example, sprachlehre, literally speech-lore, means grammar.

However, one compound of lore did gain currency. Impressed by the work of Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), who, from 1812 to 1822, had compiled with his brother Wilhelm (1786-1859) an anthology of German fairy tales, the British author William John Thoms (1801-85) coined the word folklore in The Athenæum. Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (London) of 22nd August 1846. Under a pseudonym, Ambrose Merton, he wrote:

Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore,—(the Lore of the People)—that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our fore-fathers might have gathered a goodly crop.
[…] The connexion between the FOLK-LORE of England (remember I claim the honour of introducing the epithet Folk-Lore, as Disraeli does of introducing Father-Land, into the literature of this country) and that of Germany is so intimate that such communications will probably serve to enrich some future edition of Grimm’s Mythology.

He proposed to do in The Athenæum

for the Mythology of the British Islands the good service which that profound antiquary and philologist has accomplished for the Mythology of Germany.

The editors of The Athenæum agreed, and the same year, Thoms began a regular column titled Folk-Lore.

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