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An anecdote is a short tale told about an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident. Usually an anecdote is based on real life, an incident involving actual persons or places. However, over time, modification in reuse may convert a particular anecdote into a fictional piece. Sometimes humorous, anecdotes are not jokes, because their primary purpose is not to evoke laughter. An anecdote is in the tradition of both the parable and fable, but is distinct from them in several ways. It need not be a metaphor, but only an illustrative incident, such as illustrating a person's character trait. It might or might not have a moral, a necessity in both parable and fable. It is unlikely to use animal characters as the fable usually does.

The word anecdote ("unpublished", literally "not given out") comes from Procopius of Caesarea, the biographer of Justinian I, who produced a work entitled Ανεκδοτα (variously translated as Unpublished Memoirs or Secret History), which primarily is a collection of short incidents from the private life of the Byzantine court. Gradually, the term anecdote came to be applied to any short tale utilized to emphasize or illustrate whatever point the author wished to make.

As a rule, biographical anecdotes are considered too trivial or apocryphal to be included in a scholarly biography.

Anecdotes are typically oral and ephemeral. They are just one of the many types of stories told in organisations and the collection of anecdotes from people in an organisation can be used to better understand its organisational culture (Snowden, 1999; Gabriel, 2000).

Snowden, D. 1999. "Story Telling: An Old Skill In A New Context." Business Information Review 16(1):30-37.

Gabriel, Y. 2000. Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Well-known examples

For example, Cary Grant is said to have been reluctant to reveal his age to the public, having played the youthful lover for more years than would have been appropriate. One day, while he was sorting out some business with his agent, a telegram arrived from a journalist who was desperate to learn how old the actor was. It read: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? Grant, who happened to open it himself, immediately cabled back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

A more sophisticated anecdote concerns Sidney Morgenbesser, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. One day in New York City, Morgenbesser put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the subway steps. A policeman approached and told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and that he had not yet lit up. The cop repeated his injunction. Morgenbesser repeated his observation. After a few such exchanges, the cop saw he was beaten and fell back on the oldest standby of enfeebled authority: "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it." To this the old philosopher replied, "Who do you think you are—Kant?" His last word was misconstrued, and the whole question of the Categorical Imperative had to be hashed out down at the police station. Morgenbesser won the argument.

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Last updated: 02-06-2005 15:23:48
Last updated: 03-13-2005 10:32:25