Urban legends and other tales of the city

I keep hoping that Ahmed Chalabi might surrender his political aspirations and find his way onto some other stage - as a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, or maybe a new show by Andrew Lloyd Webber, in extended tryouts out of town somewhere.

But no, the Iraqi deputy premier is still in a featured role, albeit not one of top billing, in the latest chapter of the long- running reality show called World History as It Happens.

A possible contender to be his country's prime minister after next month's elections, he has been appearing at places like the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the American Enterprise Institute in Washington to protest that he did not help mislead the United States into war in Iraq and is not a spy for Iran.

I'm struck by the phrase he seems to keep using to dismiss these allegations: "urban myth." Not "outrageous lie" or "utter nonsense," not some barnyard epithet, but "urban myth." It's sort of hip, but not really slang, not some nonce word catchphrase that a century hence will have scholars scratching their heads and asking, "What did he mean?"

It's an interesting word choice for someone trying to signal, "Hey, I'm OK, I speak your language."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "urban myth" as "orig. US" and referring to "a sensational but apocryphal story which through repetition in varying versions has acquired the status of folklore, esp. one lent plausibility by its contemporary setting, or by the purported involvement of someone known to the teller."

Oxford's first citation goes back to 1960, referring to urban myths of east Africa. "Urban legend," with examples going back to 1968, is a variant.

When I made a check of some online dictionaries, I turned up similar information, including one citation accompanied by a pop-up ad for psychics ("One free question. Get accurate, immediate answers"), which tells you something about the neighborhood where "urban myths" hang out.

I'm struck by how "urban," which after all means "of or pertaining to a town or city" seems to be pressed into service to mean "contemporary," as in the contemporary settings that seem to give such folktales the credibility they have. Why not "suburban legends" then, or "legends of the gated community"?

Our feelings about cities, and living in them, are mixed, and our language reflects this, from "Ford to City: Drop Dead" to "I (heart) Boise." A webzine on word origins, called "Take Our Word for It," offered a special feature on urban vocabulary a few years back. The skyline of the big city looms over all sorts of words - "urbane," obviously, but "civil" and even "polite" (which some trace to "polis," the Greek word for city) as well, to say nothing of "cosmopolitan." It has remained, even though "cosmopolis" ("universal city") has never quite caught on.

In other contexts, "urban" has come to be a sort of code language to mean African-American, as in the demographic slice-and-dice game of commercial radio. "Inner city" is another phrase pressed into service as code. People are supposed to understand that it doesn't mean Wall Street or Fifth Avenue.

Metropolis, as readers of classic comic books know, is where Superman lives. Etymologically, it means "mother city," home base, the capital of a region. "Metropolis" is also the name of a 1927 movie by Fritz Lang. Gotham City is Batman's hometown. Both are (wink, wink, nudge) understood to be New York.

But what about "Gotham," anyway? It's too ubiquitous in New York to have been borrowed from the comic books, surely?

It's traced to Washington Irving, who used "Gotham" in his "Salmagundi Papers" (1807 - definitely pre-Batman). And it refers to the "Wise Men of Gotham," which is a village in Nottinghamshire, England. Their story was one of "the first urban legends," according to one website I checked out.

As another source relates: "The story is that King John intended to live in the neighborhood, but that the villagers, foreseeing ruin as the cost of supporting the court, feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived. Wherever the latter went they saw the rustics engaged in some absurd task.

"John, on this report, determined to have his hunting lodge elsewhere, and the wise men boasted, we ween [imagine] there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it."

The Gothamites, we'd say today, were worried about gentrification.

This appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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