Apocryphal Anecdotes and Anecdotal Apocrypha

Years ago, I was once told I was using the word “apocryphal” wrongly. The corrector told me that I meant “anecdotal.”

I didn’t: I knew what I was saying, and I knew what I meant (barring any simple slip of the tongue). It wasn’t worth arguing with the corrector, especially since it was my boss at the time (an intelligent and well educated person, but used to operating in fixed ways, unable to admit error, and unable to tolerate correction).

Anecdotal is an uncommon word, but one many people are familiar with. People who read a lot, especially in the sciences, probably encounter it on a weekly basis, if not more frequently. As the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) present it, anecdotal means “not necessarily true or reliable, because based on personal accounts rather than facts or research.” Anecdotal evidence is not rigorous: it is evidence, but it’s evidence obtained from anecdotes (individual stories); it hasn’t been methodically collected, subjected to thorough analysis, etc. As the definition implies, it might be reliable…but it might not be.

Apocryphal is a much less common word. If you know this word at all, you probably know it in a biblical context: “the apocrypha” is a term often used to describe books of the bible that appear in some versions (typically Catholic) but not others (typically Protestant). Most sources I’ve consulted don’t capitalize this use of apocrypha (or are inconsistent), so I’m sticking with lowercase. The OED defines apocryphal as “of doubtful authenticity; spurious, fictitious, false; fabulous, mythical.” It can also be something of unknown authorship, or non-canonical. ODO gives a similar summation, with a twist: “of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as true.” Widely circulated as true? Hmm.

The context I was using apocryphal in related to some computer systems support issues. The specific question has long evaporated from my memory, but the general situation is still clear: I had been asked if a complex and unusual proposed course of action was a viable solution to an equally unusual problem. My response, in so many words, was that while I’d heard of (but not personally encountered) the specific problem, the proposed solution might indeed prove to be appropriate. However, I warned that I had no first hand experience with it and that, by what little I could uncover, the effectiveness of the solution was apocryphal.

What I meant – but which my audience didn’t understand – was that the solution was, as the definition above describes, “of doubtful authenticity,” potentially “spurious,” possibly “fabulous, mythical.” My concern was that I didn’t trust the source: it was both of dubious authority and, as far as I was concerned, non-canonical (no similar solution was documented or discussed in any reliable manual). I was not, as the corrector believed, trying to say that I knew of one or two individual cases – anecdotes – where the solution had been tried.

I’ve brought all this up, using a personal anecdote, as a way to get at the distinctions between (and confusion around) these two words. An anecdote, to rehash in simple terms, is a single story, or a single data point. It’s real, it’s verified — but it might not hold up as more evidence comes in. If something is apocryphal, it’s known and possibly well-circulated, but it might not be real — there’s no hard evidence to support it, one way or the other, and the source it came from can’t be verified. Both of these are great underused words which I think everyone should have in their vocabulary, and use more often…as long as they’re used properly.

By the way, I’ve referenced the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) in this post. In most cases I prefer the more muscular Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but the OED requires a subscription (many public libraries make it available free to cardholders). On the other hand, ODO is freely available to any web user. I’ll probably still reference OED more frequently on this blog, but if you don’t have access to it the ODO is usually a good substitute.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to Apocryphal Anecdotes and Anecdotal Apocrypha

  1. Pingback: For your consideration and amusement | thebettereditor

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