The Meanings of “Myth” and Related Words

By Mark Nichol

Myth, originally a word of elevated and scholarly pretension, has passed into the vernacular to describe anything of dubious truth or validity, though it retains earlier senses. This post lists definitions of the word and others of which it is the root.

The word derives from the Greek term mythos, which variously means “speech” or “story,” or even “thought.” In modern English usage, a myth is a story, often featuring heroes and deities or supernatural entities, that explains a belief, custom, phenomenon, or worldview; it is also a synonym for allegory or parable. By extension, a myth is a belief or tradition, often one integral to a society, or an invalid notion born of ignorance or bigotry, or simply a rumor or untrue story. (Myth, without the article, denotes a body of myths.) An urban myth, meanwhile, is an account of an unusual or inexplicable event that did not occur, or state that does not exist, that is widely assumed to be true. The primary adjectival form is mythical; it is also used in the sense of “imaginary,” but mythic is appropriate for referring to astonishing achievements.

Mythology pertains to a set of myths, the study of myths, or an allegory, or to an assumption or belief. A mythologist (or, sometimes, mythologer) is someone who studies myths. Mythos is a synonym for both myth and mythology and denotes a symbolic set of cultural attitudes as well.

Mythogenesis is the development of myths or the tendency to ascribe mythical status to something. Mythopoeia, too, refers to the creation of myth. To mythicize is to turn something into, or treat something as, a myth; mythologize also has the latter meaning. Conversely, to demythologize is to analyze the meaning of myths or to unromanticize them. (A countermyth, meanwhile, is a myth that challenges or contradicts another myth.)

A mythmaker is someone who creates myths, generally in the casual sense of beliefs or traditions or of reputations about a person, place, or thing. A mythomaniac (or, sometimes, mythomane), meanwhile, is a pathological liar or exaggerator; the condition is called mythomania.

An etymologically related word is stichomythia (“verse speech”), denoting argumentative repartee, especially as a dramatic device in the performing arts.

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2 Responses to “The Meanings of “Myth” and Related Words”

  • D.A.W.

    However, the term “urban myth” has become generalized to the point where “urban” does not apply anymore. Livestock mutilations and the like. I also read of couple sisters who lived in a remote part of Virginia. They claimed that they had been kidnapped, on several occasions, by the denizens of flying saucers, examined, taken for rides, and then returned home.
    I tell you honestly. If I lived in Virginia or Maryland, and I had the scarcest notion that I had been taken away in UFOs, then I would gather up a lot of camping gear and supplies, and then I would make a new home in Lafayette Park, across the avenue from the White House. I would declare, “Aliens, come and get me now,” because then they would be observed by the Capital Police, the Secret Service, the Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force, and the FAA.
    Then, there would be no doubt about “alien abductions”!

  • D.A.W.

    The term “urban myth” comes from tales like these.
    Huge, hungry alligators dwell in the sewer systems of New York City. Here’s how they got there: People/children from NYC bought small pet gators while on trips to Florida, and then when they got tired of their gators, they flushed them down the toilets, where they thrived in the sewers. Maybe they ate the rats, snakes, dogs, and cats that live there.
    So, these myths got started in places like NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Moscow, Berlin, and Paris.

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