An Introduction to Anecdote

Anecdote is commonly defined as a short amusing story about a real incident or a person’s private life. As a story of some sort, anecdotes belongs to the genre of oral folkloreOpens in new window, a traditional narrative, which studies the oral, customary, and material traditions of a people. It focuses on what is handed down from generation to generation in a culture, by informal, non-literary means.

Understood in this way, Anecdote may be appropriately defined as,

  • “a brief, oral, traditional, usually humorous stories about historical characters that are believed to be true by the teller and the audience.”

This is because it both provides a completely detailed and structured conception of anecdote. Anecdotes represents the genre of oral folklore because they express the traditional element in a culture.

In ancient times, anecdote was originally meant a fact not published; this is because it was considered either too trivial to become a part of dignified history, or of such a character that it ought not to be drawn to the public knowledge.

In the present, it is used to denote any particular fact or incident that may be detached from its connection with other facts and presented either to illustrate a point or to amuse the audience.

Importance of Anecdotes

Anecdotes are useful because they frequently arouse the feelings, some of the important role they play in topical discourses are highlighted as follows.

  1. Anecdotes are often used to explain either doctrines or duties to dull understandings.
  2. Anecdote may be introduced to win audience’s attention at the commencement of a topic.
  3. Anecdotes are used, first, to interest the mind and secure the attention of our hearers.
  4. Introducing anecdotes in discourses help the memory to grasp the truth, or the point.

Attempts at Classifying Anecdote with other Folklore Narratives

Anecdotes are classified as oral folklore; however, there is some disagreement among folklorists as to what genre of oral folklore anecdotes represent;

  1. Some have placed the anecdote as a short personal legendOpens in new window, an oral narrative believed to be true by teller and audience. These narratives feature a historical person, usually someone accepted as a hero by the audience, and serve the purpose to explain a facet of the hero’s life or character. Although a number of anecdotes fit under the heading of legend, however, a few others, in which the main character is not a historical person, do not.
  2. Anecdotes are in many ways similar to folktales, fictional stories told primarily to entertain. A number of anecdotes come with formulaic phrasing, characters, storylines, and ultimately functions like folktales. It is important to note that most are shorter than folktales but nevertheless are told to illustrate important point, not merely to entertain. Thus anecdotes as a group, then, cannot be classified under the heading of short folktales.
  3. Having similarity with proverbsOpens in new window, another oral folklore genre, some anecdotes are used to prove a point and to pass on wisdom. Could anecdotes, then, be simply longer proverbs? The answer is No, because the anecdote always tells a story, no matter how brief, while a proverb has no storyline or characterization.
  4. Because some anecdotes are humorous, some folklorists tend to classify them with jests or jokesOpens in new window. In this view the anecdote is a short form of the Schwank or humorous story. There are several difficulties in this view; because not all anecdotes are humorous, and even those that are may have a serious point to pass, hence one cannot carelessly group all anecdotes together as jests. Also, most anecdotes are attached to historical persons, but most jokes have fictitious characters. In the same vein, anecdotes usually claim to have “really happened,” while jokes rarely make this claim. In as much as most anecdotes are humorous narratives, they exhibit characteristics quite different from the typical joke.

Anecdotes typically come with a point and express a definite and singular fact often related clearly to make the central thought striking. This is evident, as when Warburton, in a “Discourse against Free-thinkers,” after attempting to show by argument that all their efforts had inured to the advantage of Christianity, concludes with the following anecdote:

  • “Herodotus tells us, that at what time their deity, the Nile, returns into his ancient channel, and the husbandman hath committed the good seed to the opening glebe, it was their custom to turn in whole droves of swine to range, to trample, root up, and destroy at pleasure. And now nothing appeared but desolation, while the ravages of the obscene herd had killed every cheerful hope of future plenty; when, on the issue, it was seen that all their perversity and dirty taste had effected was only this: that the seed took better root, incorporated more kindly with the soil, and at length shot up in a more luxuriant and abundant harvest.”