Someone once defined an anecdote as "a brief account of an incident that has never occurred in the life of some famous person."
Folklorists would specify that an anecdote must be a concise personal legend that usually contains a witty quotation and is attributed to several people. The subjects of the anecdotes can be either famous persons or just locally renowned characters.A typical anecdote is the one about a person who is restored to his or her rightful position after a long period of imprisonment or exile. Supposedly, the returnee then addresses co-workers, students, townspeople, etc., in these well-chosen words: "As I was saying before I was interrupted . . ."
Such stories are said to be "migratory," which means they're told about different people in various times and places. Of course, sometimes people may simply hear a good anecdote and adopt its punch line - like "We can't go on meeting like this!" - using it whenever an appropriate situation occurs.
I live for the day when someone asks me "Professor, how long does it take to prepare one of your wonderful lectures?" Then I can borrow a line from the anecdote that's been told about scores of earlier academics and answer, "A lifetime."
The "As I was saying . . ." anecdote is a good example of how such stories spread and change.
Folklorist Mac Barrick of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania has collected versions of this story attributed to both a French and an Irish politician during World War II, and to an American college president during the 1960s.
Barrick also noted that when sports editor Stanley Woodward returned to the New York Post in 1965 after an absence of 11 years, he wrote a column that began "As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted."
The furthest back that Barrick traced the story was 16th-century Spain, where it was told concerning poet and educator Fra Luis de Leon. Arrested by the Inquisition in 1572 and released in 1577, de Leon, or so some history books claim, began his next lecture by saying in Latin "Dicebamus hesterna die . . ." ("As we were saying yesterday . . .")
Documenting the continuing currency of this anecdote, or at least its punch line, was a letter from Charles A. Gilmore of Harrisburg, Pa., that appeared in Smithsonian magazine in November 1984.
Gilmore was commenting on a previous article concerning the noted American anthropologist Margaret Mead. He wrote:
"I should like to share with my fellow readers a story of my first and only contact with Margaret Mead. At a Washington conference a matronly figure holding a large staff walked up to the group I was with, acknowledged introductions and promptly pulled aside one social scientist whom she knew. She began a conversation with `As I was saying. . .'
"After a rather animated talk of 20 minutes or so, our friend rejoined us and said, `That, gentlemen, was the last half of a conversation Margaret and I were having in Geneva about 10 years ago.' "
Another often-repeated anecdote is this one that Barrick found in several sources that gave different variations:
"Lady Astor is reported to have said to Churchill, `Winston, if you were my husband, I would poison your coffee.'
" `If you were my wife, Nancy,' replied Churchill suavely, `I would drink it.' "
One of my students found a variation of the same story in a LDS Church magazine published in Utah in 1900. This time the anecdote concerned a drunk who staggered onto a trolley car and was admonished by a straight-laced lady who told him, "If you were my husband, I'd give you poison."
The drunk was witty enough to reply, "If I was your h-hus-hic-band, I'd take it."
The same story may still be around on television reruns, since Mac Barrick's article notes that in January 1976 it was told as a joke on the program "Hee Haw."
As I was saying, the anecdote is certainly a persistent form of folklore.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.