Myths and Urban Legends

Karen Frazier
Is the white on baby carrots really chlorine?

Myths and urban legends are ingrained in our popular culture. Many people pass them on unknowingly, repeating popularly told tales from person to person. This is how myths and urban legends are perpetuated.

What are Myths and Urban Legends?

Urban legends and myths are modern folk tales. According to Webster's dictionary, an urban legend is, "an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true". Urban legends are often referred to as "urban myths" or simply as myths. If you hear a plausible sounding story about a non-specific person (a friend of a friend, for instance) that often has a shocking or funny climax, there's a good chance that it is an urban legend.

Where Do Urban Legends Come From?

You've probably heard a number of urban legends throughout your life. They are stories where someone tells you about their uncle's friend's older brother who encountered something dark and mysterious - or something just downright odd.

Myths and urban legends have been around for centuries, passed on from person to person in a society. In today's day and age, the Internet is a hotbed of urban legends that can spread like wildfire with a simple click of a forward key. Many of the virus warnings you receive by email are urban legends, as are some of the wildly popular forwarded emails such as the little boy who is collecting business cards before he dies, or popular warnings about the dangers of common objects such as Febreeze or baby carrots.

Elements of Truth

Many urban legends have some element of truth to them, and this is what makes them so plausible. Some are inspired by an actual event, but they become so twisted up when passed from person to person that the story you hear bears little resemblance to the original story. If you'd like to experience evidence of this, try the childhood game of "telephone". Gather several of your friends, and have them sit in a line. Whisper a story to one person and have them pass it on down the line. It is very seldom that the story that reaches the end of the line is the same story that was told at the front of the line. This is how urban legends develop and change over time.

Some urban legends may come from an actual event that has been misinterpreted. A good example of this is the aforementioned urban legend about baby carrots. Haven't heard it? According to the story, when baby carrots have white on the outside of them, it is chlorine used in the manufacturing process leaching out of the carrots. This legend is actually a misinterpretation of the fact that carrots are rinsed in chlorine as an antimicrobial; however, there is no residue. The white on the outside of baby carrots actually is merely dehydration in older carrots.

Not all urban legends have elements of truth in them. Some are outright fabrications. Many urban legends come from books or movies long forgotten.

Characteristics of Urban Legends

Have you heard a great story - or a scary story - and you are wondering if it is an urban legend? While the subjects of urban legends span a wide range, many urban legends have a combination of common themes that may include:

  • Humor
  • Horror
  • Warning
  • Embarrassment
  • Appeal to empathy
  • Moralizing

Further, there are elements that can give away a good story as an urban legend. These elements include:

  • The story is about a non-specific protagonist (brother's friend's father's best friend) instead of the action happening to the story teller.
  • You hear different versions of the same story.
  • The topic of the story relates to common societal fears such as death, embarrassment or crime.
  • The story has a moral or a warning inherent in its telling.
  • The story sounds too odd to be true.

Verifying the Legend

Are you still not sure that the story you've heard or the email you've received is an urban legend? With the onset of widely forwarded urban legends via email, Snopes.com has arrived on the scene to help you verify. With a huge database of legends and folklore that are widely circulated as the truth, Snopes.com is the first place many people go now to verify that email before passing it on to their emailing list.Whatever their source and no matter how they are circulated, urban legends say a lot about the fears and worries of the culture in which they are circulated. As a form of modern-day folklore, they continue to be widely circulated to those unsuspecting people who are ripe for a good story.

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Myths and Urban Legends