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William John Thoms, The Man Who Invented The Word Folklore

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By Anatoly Liberman

All words must have been coined by individuals. This statement surprises and embarrasses not only the uninitiated but also some language historians. We are used to thinking that “people” created ancient language and art, but what is people? (This question, though in another guise, will recur below.) A group of activists working together and producing in chorus meaningful sound complexes like big ~ bag ~ bug ~ bog? Or a committee like those on which we sit, organs of collective wisdom? As a rule, every novelty that does not die “without issue” passes through a predictable cycle: someone has something to offer, a small group of enthusiasts surrounding the inventor adopts it, more adherents show their support, the novelty becomes common property, and (not necessarily) the originator is forgotten. We have no way of tracing the beginning of the oldest words, and even some neologisms remain etymological puzzles, but the names of some “wordsmiths” have not been lost. For instance, Lilliputian was coined by Jonathan Swift, gas by J.B. van Helmont, and jeep (which later became Jeep) by E.C. Segar. As a rule, inventors use the material at hand. Swift seems to have combined lil, the colloquial pronunciation of little and put(t) “blockhead,” a slang word common in the 18th century. Van Helmont was probably inspired by the Dutch pronunciation of chaos. Jeep is sound imitative, like peep. In similar fashion, we have no doubt about the structure of the noun folklore (folk + lore), but the story of its emergence is worth telling.

William John Thoms (1802-1885) began his literary career as an expert editor of old tales and prose romances. He also investigated customs and superstitions. Especially interesting are his studies of popular lore in Shakespeare: elves, fairies, Puck, Queen Mab, and others. They were published in the forties, the decade in which he met his star hour. Special works on Thoms are extremely few (the main one dates to 1946), and the archival documents pertaining to him remain untapped, but he related some events of his life himself. It was not by chance that California Folklore Quarterly printed an article about him (“’Folklore’: William John Thoms” by Duncan Emrich, volume 5, pp. 155-374) in 1946. A hundred years earlier a letter signed by Ambrose Merton appeared in the London-based journal The Athenaeum. Those who have leafed through its huge folio volumes probably could not help wondering how the subscribers managed to find their way through such an enormous mass of heterogeneous materials. Yet that weekly had a devoted readership, and its voice reached far.

The 1846 letter is available in two modern anthologies, but outside the professional circle of folklorists hardly anyone has read it, so that I will quote its beginning and end. “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-by it is more a Lore than a literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore,—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 forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop. No one who has made the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions:—the first how much that is curious and interesting in those matters is now entirely lost—the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion…. It is only honest that I should tell you I have long been contemplating a work upon our “Folklore” (under that title, mind Messes. A, B, and C,—so do not try to forestall me);—and I am personally interested in the success of the experiment which I have, in this letter, albeit imperfectly, urged you to undertake.” Not only did the editor of The Athenaeum welcome the letter. He opened a special rubric for “folk-lore,” and “Ambrose Merton” (this was Thoms of course) became its editor.

The letter was followed by an injunction, part of which is so much to the point that it must be reproduced here: “We have taken some time to weigh the suggestion of our correspondent—desirous to satisfy ourselves that any good of the kind which he proposes could be effected in such space as we are able to spare from the many other demands upon our columns; and have before our eyes the fear of that shower of trivial communication which a notice in conformity with his suggestion is likely to bring. We have finally decided that, if our antiquarian correspondents be earnest and well-informed and subject their communications to the condition of having something to communicate, we may… be the means of effecting some valuable salvage for the future historian of old customs and feelings…. With these views, however, we must announce to our future contributors under the above head, that their communications will be subjected to a careful sifting—both as regards value, authenticity, and novelty; and that they will save both themselves and us much unnecessary trouble if they will refrain from offering any facts and speculations which at once need recording and deserve it.”

Thoms may have regretted the fact that he wrote his letter to The Athenaeum under a pseudonym, for a year later, in another letter to the same journal, he disclosed his identity. He more than once reminded his readers that it was he who launched the word folklore. From time to time somebody would derive folklore from German or Danish. As long as he lived, Thoms kept refuting such unworthy rumors (he also suffered from the neglect of his Shakespeare scholarship); after his death others defended him. The word found acceptance both in the English speaking world and abroad. German, Austrian, and Swiss scholars eventually borrowed it with its original spelling (Folklore), though the German for folk is Volk. By the end of the eighties folklore had become an accepted term in Scandinavia, as well as in the Romance and Slavic speaking countries. The British Folklore Society, which was also formed largely thanks to Thoms’s efforts, adopted the title Folk-Lore Record for its journal (now it is called simply Folklore), and Thoms was elected the Society’s director. In the introduction to the first volume he noted, perhaps not without a touch of irony, that the word he had coined would make him better known than the rest of his professional activities.

As we have seen, the “Saxon” term folklore was applied to the vanishing “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc.” Thoms did not realize how ambiguous his agenda was. For more than 150 years, researchers have been arguing over whether the subject of folklore is only “survivals” (does modern folklore exist?), who are the people, the “folk” to be approached, and whether folklore is the name of the treasures to be collected and described or of the science (“the lore”) devoted to them. Today folklore is often understood as a study of verbal art, but not less often it passes off as a branch of cultural anthropology. In 1846 folk meant “peasantry,” which excluded urban culture. One also spoke vaguely of common people, of story tellers nearly untouched by the advance of civilization, and of the working people in the “byeways of England” (the phrase, spelling and all, is from The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1885). Railways were the main bugaboo of those who watched the rural landscape disappear under the wheels of the devil, the steam engine. Being run over by a train became a literary motif.

In 1849 an event of great importance happened in Thoms’s life: he began publishing his own weekly that, after rejecting many titles and ignoring the advice of some well-wishers, he decided to call Notes and Queries. His old appeal to the readers to send ballads, tales, proverbs, descriptions of customs, and so forth brought many responses, and Thoms was loath to start a rival periodical, for fear of undermining The Athenaeum, but he received the editor’s blessing. The new journal turned into a main forum for letters that Thoms had invited correspondents to send to The Athenaeum. The rubric on “folk-lore” in both periodicals made the term familiar, and later the derivatives (folklorist and folkloric) emerged. Before resigning as editor, Thoms told the story of his magazine in a series of short essays and published them in Notes and Queries for 1871 and 1872. In 1848 Dombey and Son appeared. One of the novel’s most endearing characters is the one-armed Captain Cuttle. Like so many other personages brought to life by Dickens, the good captain has a tag: he likes to repeat the maxim “When found, make a note of.” Thoms used this catchphrase as a motto for his journal, and it was printed on the title page of each issue.

I have already written about the value and the worldwide success of Notes and Queries. This magazine is one of a kind. Personally, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to it, for suggestions on word origins were (and still are) common in Notes and Queries, and I have nearly 8000 of them in my database. Some words have been discussed only in its pages, and some first-rate specialists sought no better exposure of their ideas. The man who invented the word folklore and founded Notes and Queries deserves to be remembered, and I am sorry that no one has written a book about him. The reason may be that he was neither a professor nor a madman. Perfectly sane and of humble origin, he was survived by his wife and nine children.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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4 Responses to “William John Thoms, The Man Who Invented The Word Folklore”
  1. John Clinton says:

    I have been carrying out some family research on the Thoms family. William John Thoms married Laura Sale 14th July 1828 – well that’s when he applied for the marriage licence. The Sale family from which Laura came were a large family of musicians which my family and I have traced back to 1734. They were mainly lay – vicars at Westminster Abbey and St Pauls Cathedral though John Bernard Sale and his father John Sale sung in many concerts around the country, and was musical tutor to Princess Victoria. They all members of the Chapel Royal. William John Thoms was the executor for J.B. Sale’s will. The reason why I (and my family) have been carrying out research on the above families is because my Great Grandfather (John Wade Clinton) who was an actor has John Bernard Sale as his father on his wedding certificate. My Gt Grandfather has his name as John Wade Clinton Sale. It is sorry that no one has written a book about William J Thoms and I also feel the same about the Sale family.

  2. [...] In a series of short notes (naturally, notes) spread over the years 1876-1877, its first editor William John Thoms (1803-1885) told the world how the periodical had become a reality and how almost overnight it had [...]

  3. hugo zabre says:

    I have understood that “jeep” is simply a phonetical offspring of “GP” meaning “general purpose” which happened to be the official name of the multipurpose land vehicle developed during ww2. Then again, it could be not…..

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