From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
An urban legend or urban myth is similar to a modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used to mean something akin to an "apocryphal story". Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time.
Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail. People frequently allege that such tales happened to a "friend of a friend"—so often, in fact, that "friend of a friend", or "FOAF", has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.
Some urban legends have passed through the years, with only minor changes to suit regional variations. One example as such is the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. More recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people ambushed, anesthetized, and waking up minus one kidney, which was surgically removed for transplantation.
The term urban myth is also used. Brunvand feels that urban legend is less stigmatizing because myth is commonly used to describe things that are widely accepted as untrue. The more academic definitions of myth usually refer to a supernatural tale involving gods, spirits, the origin of the world, and other symbols that are usually capable of multiple meanings (cf. the works of Claude Levi-Strauss, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Northrop Frye for various interpretations). However, the usage may simply reflect the idiom.
The term urban myth is preferred in some languages such as Mexican Spanish, where conventional coinage is "mito urbano" rather than "leyenda urbana." In French, urban legends are usually called rumeurs d'Orléans ("Orleans rumours") after Edgar Morin's work. "Légende contemporaine" is an acceptable translation of the English idiom, instead of "légende urbaine", which is an improper and meaningless verbatim translation, though used by some French sociologists or journalists. But neither expression is commonly used: for ordinary French people, the more genuine terms rumeur or canular (hoax), not to mention more colloquial and expressive words, describe this phenomenon of "viral spread tall story" properly enough.
Some scholars prefer the term contemporary legend to highlight those tales that originated relatively recently. This is, of course, true for all periods in history; for instance, an eighteenth-century pamphlet alleging that a woman was tricked into eating the ashes of her lover's heart would be a contemporary legend with respect to the eighteenth century.