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“He Coined the Word ‘Folk-Lore'”: The “Old Folk-Lorist” William John Thoms

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Folk-Lore 003
This photo of William John Thoms was published in the magazine The Academy, No. 1436 (Nov. 11, 1899), p. 530. The folklore of the picture is that Thoms himself wrote the little poem on the back of this photograph when he presented it to his friend, George Laurence Gomme.

August 22 is an important date to folklore fans.  It is, in fact, the anniversary of the first appearance of the (originally hyphenated) word “Folk-Lore” in print. The medium was a letter to the editor of the Athenæum, a scholarly journal, and the author was William John Thoms, although he wrote the letter under his pseudonym, Ambrose Merton.

Thoms is an interesting character in the history of both folklore and literature.  Few people set out on purpose to coin a new word and succeed so completely that it becomes both an everyday term and the name of an academic discipline. A similarly small handful of people single-handedly found an academic journal that continues publication for over a hundred and fifty years.  Only a tiny number of people do both. Such a fellow was William John Thoms; three years after coining the word folk-lore, he founded Notes & Queries, a journal that is still published to this day.

Thoms is a particularly dear figure to us at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, because he did these things while maintaining a day job we can relate to: he was deputy librarian to the House of Lords, one house of the British legislature.  Because of his largely behind-the-scenes role as a government employee, Thoms remains a much more obscure figure than most academics with similar accomplishments.  I therefore thought it would be nice to highlight some of his contributions here, and make some of his own writings about folklore available.

Born in Westminster, England, on November 16, 1803, Thoms followed in his father’s footsteps to become a government clerk. But he always had a keen love of literature, and on the side he established himself as a member of various literary and antiquarian societies, through which he met esteemed men of letters including Thomas Amyot, Francis Douce, and John Bruce.  With help from them, he published three volumes of Early Prose Romances (1827-1828), which were later republished in collected editions. He was also introduced to current works by antiquarians such as John Brand, mythologists such as Jacob Grimm, and romantic writers such as Sir Walter Scott, whose works influenced his thinking on old, traditional cultural materials. (Thoms particularly mentioned Scott’s essay on fairies, which was published as his introduction to the ballad “Tam Lin” or “Young Tamlane.”)

Thoms continued to publish edited books of old English literature under his own name through 1845, the year he was hired away from his previous secretarial job by the House of Lords.  Thereafter for several years, his writings appeared under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton, perhaps to make sure people understood that his roles as a government librarian and a scholar were separate.

By 1846 he had an impressive list of publications, and was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Secretary of the Camden Society; in other words, he was an established and active scholar.  He had for some years been thinking about the influence of technology on rural life, and was concerned that rural traditions might be damaged by increased travel and communications, symbolized especially in his mind by the railroad.  Wondering if he might stimulate his fellow antiquarians in more rural parts of the country to document these traditions, he wrote the letter to the Athenæum suggesting a write-in column, in which people all over the country could publish such traditions.

It’s an interesting letter for many reasons, and I’ve published it in full at this link.  For now I’ll draw attention to two things about it.  First, of course, is the coining of the word “Folk-Lore,” which happened seemingly casually, in a parenthetical passage prefaced with “by-the-bye”:

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-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore, –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.

Yet Thoms wasn’t being as casual as he seemed, for he also ended the letter with a postscript:

P.S.-It is only honest that I should tell you I have long been contemplating a work upon our ‘Folk-Lore’ (under that title, mind Messrs. A, B, and C, –and 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.

(This plan to publish a book of English Folk-Lore never came to fruition, but Thoms went so far as to advertise the imminent publication of such a book three years later.)

Folk-Lore ad
This advertisement for Thoms’s book The Folk-Lore of England was published several times in the first year of Notes & Queries. The book was never published.

Second, I’ll call attention to the meaning of folklore in Thoms’s words.  He explains it once as “the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c., of the olden time,” and later in the letter, he adds legends, local traditions, and nursery rhymes to the list of things that are “folk-lore.”

The Athenæum‘s reaction was very positive indeed.  Thoms was invited to meet with the “Supreme Editor” of the magazine, Charles Wentworth Dilke, and offered the opportunity to edit the column he was proposing.  Since there wasn’t time between August 22 and August 29 for Thoms to receive and answer any correspondence about “Folk-Lore,” the second column is another letter from Thoms, expanding and clarifying the scope of “Folk-Lore,” and also presenting its first entry: an investigation of the name “Old Scratch” as a nickname for the Devil.  One of the most interesting passages of the letter is as follows:

Can no Devonshire correspondent furnish new and untold stories of his native Pixies? Are there no records of a fairy pipe-manufactory to be gathered at Swinborne, in Worcestershire?–In the mining and mountainous districts of Derbyshire are all “such antique fables and fairy toys” entirely extinct?–If so, is not the neighbourhood of Haddon, or of Hardwicke, or of both, still visited by the coach drawn by headless steeds, driven by a coachman as headless as themselves?–Does not such an equipage still haunt the mansion of Parsloes, in Essex?-and could not some cor-respondent from that county furnish you with stories of the inhabitants of Coggeshall, to prove them very rivals of the Wise Men of Gotham?–Is the Barguest no longer seen in Yorkshire?–Is “howdening” altogether obsolete in Kent–and, if so, when was this last trace of a heathen rite performed?–Are the legends of Tregeagle no longer current in Cornwall?–These are all subjects not undeserving attention: and it should be remembered that legends and traditions which are considered trifling, in the localities to which they more immediately relate, assume an interest in the eyes of strangers to whom they are not familiar–and an importance when placed in apposition with cognate materials, by the light which they receive and furnish from such juxtaposition.

As my Library of Congress predecessor Duncan Emrich pointed out, this letter clarifies that Thoms wants folklore gathered through fieldwork and personal observation, not research in manuscripts.  This was a fairly radical idea at the time, but has since come to be standard in the field of folklore. Moreover, Thoms suggests a comparative approach, placing similar items from different regions together to see what light they shed on one another: this was the standard “first step” of folklore research for the next century and more, and is still an important tool in the folklorist’s kit. (The second “Folk-Lore” Column, along with the first, is published at this link.)

“Folk-Lore” ran in the Athenæum until 1849, when Thoms left that journal to found his own, Notes & Queries.  It’s pretty clear that his plan was to re-establish the “Folk-Lore” column in the new journal.  In fact, as he revealed in a series of articles in 1876, he agonized about starting Notes & Queries at all, worrying that he was betraying his fellow editors at the Athenæum.  When he received their blessings, he founded the new journal, which operated much like his “Folk-Lore” column, but with a broader focus: language, literature, and culture.  The journal was to be a place where scholars would publish “notes” about curious odds and ends they had encountered in their research, in case those odds and ends were the exact details being sought by other scholars. At the same time, they could publish “queries” when they were seeking such details that they thought others might have come across. The idea was succinctly expressed by Thoms’s friend Rev. Maitland, who called it “that little paper you once proposed, in which we could all ask and answer one another’s questions.”

This may seem like a quaint idea today, but in an era before search engines,  databases, and online forums, there was considerable luck involved in coming across the crucial piece of information that might shed light on a thorny philological question. A journal like “Notes and Queries” gathered such tidbits in one place, and provided a forum for asking other scholars for help. It functioned a lot like the Facebook Groups scholars set up today, except for the two weeks wait time one could expect between posing a question and getting an answer!

Notes & Queries was established in the first week of November, 1849.  Three months later, Thoms reinstituted the “Folk-Lore” column in his new publication, with a letter claiming he had had several requests from readers to do so. It’s almost a sure thing that Thoms was stretching the truth here, and had intended to continue his column in Notes & Queries regardless of demand from his readers; Emrich goes so far as call this claim of several letters a “delightful hoax!”

“Folk-Lore” in Notes & Queries was a very popular rubric.  In his years with the journal (he retired in 1872), Thoms published about three thousand separate notes and queries under that heading, or about three per weekly issue.  If we accept the idea that he had intended from the outset to include “Folk-Lore,” we can consider Notes & Queries the first folklore journal.

Thoms’s contributions to the field of folklore weren’t quite done yet.  On February 12, 1876, an idea was presented to Notes & Queries by the pseudonymous correspondent “St. Swithin.”  Swithin, who had already shown interest in folklore, with such queries as

 I. O. U. When did this phonetic mode of writing oneself down a debtor first become general?

wrote on page 24:

I am not alone in thinking it high time that steps should be taken to form a society for collecting, arranging, and printing all the scattered bits of folk-lore which we read of in books and hear of in the flesh. Such a society should not confine its labours to the folk-lore of our own land, but should have members and workers everywhere.

A few scattered answers appeared in subsequent issues, none of them offering to do any work toward the founding of such a society. But Thoms finally weighed in on July 1, lending his wholehearted support, suggesting a model on which to organize the society, and signing himself “An Old Folk-Lorist.”  This is the first known use of the word “folklorist,” so we can credit Thoms with coining that too.  He also predicted the importance of women scholars to the discipline, albeit in a quaint Victorian way, stating:

Ladies should be specially invited to take part in the work, who, in their kindly ministrations in the cottages of their poorer neighbours, must often come across traces of old world customs and beliefs.

 You can read his whole letter on Page 12, here.

It took some time and behind-the-scenes work, but the Folk-Lore Society was founded in 1878.  Thoms was not to head the organization, but he made the announcement in Notes & Queries in December 1877, with this lengthy note starting on page 421, describing how the society would work, and appointing its first “honorary secretary,” George Laurence Gomme.  It was generally recognized that the society grew from Notes & Queries, and that as founder of the journal Thoms was both “grandfather” and founder of the world’s first Folk-Lore Society.

Thoms’s work and impact has been judged differently by different scholars.  Emrich lauds him as a founder of many important folklore institutions.  Jonathan Roper suggests he failed more often than he succeeded.  My own dear teacher Roger Abrahams sees him as a Romantic Nationalist and therefore a slightly embarrassing figure in our disciplinary history.  All of these things may be true at once, of course, and I’d like to think of Thoms’s legacy as part of our own folklore. He’s one of the “culture heroes” of the discipline, and his legacy is far more complex than I can present in this blog post.  Still, I thought it would be fun to sing the praises of the first “Folk-Lorist” on the day he coined the word “Folk-Lore.”


Abrahams, Roger.  1993. Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism in Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 106, No. 419, pp. 3-37
Emrich, Duncan.  1946. “Folk-Lore”: William John Thoms.  California Folklore Quarterly,Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 355-374
Roper, Jonathan.  2007.  Thoms and the Unachieved “Folk-Lore of England.” Folklore, Vol. 118, No. 2, pp. 203-216

Thoms’s essays on “The Story of Notes & Queries,” published in that journal in 1876, include his own summary of his early scholarly life in part 1, and his comments on the creation of the “Folk-Lore” column in part 2.  You can find them here:

“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 1

“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 2
“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 3
“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 4
“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 5
“The Story of Notes & Queries,” part 6

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you. This has been a joyful read.

  2. Well, now we know. A really nice piece Steve, full of interesting tidbits.
    I’ll look forward to more of your posts

  3. “it should be remembered that legends and traditions which are considered trifling, in the localities to which they more immediately relate, assume an interest in the eyes of strangers to whom they are not familiar–”

    — Early cultural/heritage tourism!!

  4. Thank you. It is the first time I heard of this person. He sounds like one of the originals. Will be reading more about him. Always like to go to the original source.

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