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An anecdote ( Greek ἀνέκδοτον, anékdoton , "not published") is a short, often witty or funny description of a remarkable or characteristic event, usually in the life of a person. The three most important features of the anecdote are the sharp characterization of one or more people, the reduction to the essentials and the punch line .

In everyday language, an anecdote is the (mostly oral) description of a curious, unusual or strange occurrence, without any literary claim. The authors of such anecdotes, which circulate every day, are - similar to those of jokes - often unknown. On the other hand, there are anecdotes as a literary genre .

In addition, in medicine, for example, a level of knowledge is referred to as “anecdotal” that is based on individual reports obtained unsystematically.

Origin of the term and development

The term comes from the late antique historian Prokopios of Caesarea (Προκόπιος), who in the 6th century wrote a critical work with indiscretions about the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I , which after his death under the title Ἀνέκδοτα (Anekdota, often translated as "unpublished memoir "Or" Secret History ") appeared. With this work, which can be categorized as a diatribe from a literary point of view , Prokopios deliberately disseminated gossip stories (of which earlier authors, such as Suetonius, reported ) or sometimes simple allegations or untruths; In contrast to his historical work, the famous histories , Prokopius did not seek (at least apparent) objectivity in the anecdotes . Rather, Prokopios operated open, very sharp criticism of the emperor and his environment.

Since then, the anecdote has been regarded as an oral story from the life of a well-known personality. An essential feature of the anecdote is that it tries to clarify a person's uniqueness through a seemingly random utterance or action. Historians used anecdotes in the past to characterize personalities who were considered legends at the time. The historian Plutarch is known for this, and historians are now convinced that he made up most of his anecdotes himself.

Originally anecdotes were passed down orally, later it was considered a literary form that was related to the fable , the Schwank and the Schnurre. It received new impulses in the 18th century through the Enlightenment , which placed the individual at the center and aimed to emphasize personality traits in a concise manner. Friedrich Nietzsche's well-known aphorism is to be understood in this sense : "From three anecdotes it is possible to give a picture of a person."


Truthfulness and Function

The anecdote is a succinct reproduction of a true or fictional event that illuminates the character of a person or a condition. Anecdotes allegedly report facts that are often not guaranteed.

The anecdote collector Gottfried Heindl (1924–2005) said: “There are no true and untrue anecdotes, there are only good and bad anecdotes.” With this, he expresses that an anecdote does not have to be authentic in the literal sense. It just has to reflect a particular situation or trait in a characteristic way in order to be recognized as good. Anecdotes help to get a sharp snapshot, even if they don't describe a true story.

The architect, art historian and graphic artist David Macaulay compares the anecdote with the caricature :

“The best portraits may be those with a slight intermingling of caricature, and one might wonder whether the best histories are not those in which a little of the exaggeration of poetic narrative is used insightfully. That means a small loss in accuracy, but a great gain in effect. The weaker lines are neglected, but the large and characteristic features are forever impressed on the mind. "

Goethe pointed out the usefulness of anecdotes in the context of cultivated conversation: "A collection of anecdotes and maxims is the greatest treasure for the cosmopolitan, who intersperses the first in a proper place in conversation, the last in the appropriate case knows how to remember."


The brevity of the description is an essential feature of the anecdote. Anecdotes that are given from memory in everyday life or that appear in anecdote collections can consist of just a few sentences. Since a story is told in anecdotes, however, they are more extensive than an aphorism or a sentence , which often only comprises a single sentence.

Anecdotes written by writers ( see examples below ) can be up to a few printed pages in length and then correspond to short stories or very short stories .


Anecdotes need a punch line to work properly. Mark Twain said: "For an anecdote you need three things: a punch line, a narrator and humanity."

The punch line can consist of a witty utterance by the person who is to be characterized by the anecdote. The anecdote in this case resembles an apophthegma .


Wandering anecdotes

It happens that similar anecdotes are told about different people or that essential details are presented differently in variants of an anecdote. Doris Kunschmann writes in the introduction to her Große Anecdoten-Lexikon : "The authenticity of the prominent sayings cannot always be proven, and sometimes the same joke has haunted the stairwell of world history for centuries under different names."

The anecdote about the loaned book, which comes back with grease stains as a "bookmark", is attributed to several people:

  • The Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal had a treasure trove of bibliophile rarities that he was reluctant to lend. Once he got a book back with numerous grease stains. Hofmannsthal was so upset about this that he sent a bacon rind with the following comment: "I take the liberty of sending you back the bookmark that you forgot in my book."
  • A similar anecdote is told by the Austrian writer and critic Alfred Polgar . He is said to have sent an oil sardine to the borrower of a book with the comment: "I confirm receipt of the book and allow me to return your valuable bookmark."

Anecdote as an art form

Well-known representatives of the anecdote as an art form include Johann Peter Hebel and Heinrich von Kleist .

In the case of some works of literature, the title indicates that it is an anecdote or a collection of anecdotes:

Example: Diogenes and Alexander

The alleged encounter between Alexander the Great and the Cynic Diogenes has been told since ancient times . Alexander had just been elected supreme general and accepted congratulations from all sides, but was also counting on Diogenes' appearance. When he did not want to come, Alexander decided to visit him, accompanied by some officers. Diogenes was lying in the sun when Alexander appeared with his entourage and asked if there was anything he could do for him. The needless Diogenes had only answered him, however:

Get out of the sun a little.
(Ancient Greek: Μικρὸν ἀπὸ τοῦ ἡλίου μετάστηθι. - Micron apo tou hēliou metastēthi.)

Alexander replied to his people:

If I weren't Alexander, I wanted to be Diogenes.
(Ancient Greek: Εἰ μὴ Ἀλέξανδρος ἤμην, Διογένης ἂν ἤμην. - Ei mē Alexandros ēmēn, Diogenēs an ēmēn.)

Regarding the truth of this often told anecdote handed down by Plutarch, the website of the University of Göttingen states: “It is unlikely that king and philosopher ever met. However, the anecdote aptly characterizes the difference between the king, fully aware of his power, and the philosopher, who had only a slight contempt for it. "

This anecdote owes its popularity to the power of fascination with the life of a philosopher.

Anecdotal reports in science

“Anecdotal” is also the term used to refer to collections of individual observations without methodological control and statistical weighting. Alternative medicine in particular can often only prove the effectiveness of therapeutic agents "anecdotally". There is a risk of selective perception , with the result that only successful applications are remembered, but unsuccessful attempts are forgotten. Therefore, such recommendations are scientifically questionable and only recognized with reservations.


  • It has to sound like a zoo - musician anecdotes , Friedrike C. Raderer and Rolf Wehmeier (eds.), Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-15-010654-9 .


  • Heinz Grothe: anecdote. (= Metzler Collection; Dept. E, Poetics; M 101). 2nd Edition. Metzler, Stuttgart 1984, ISBN 3-476-12101-1 .
  • Sonja Hilzinger: Anecdotal storytelling in the Age of Enlightenment. On the structural and functional change of the genre anecdote in historiography, journalism and literature of the 18th century. M and P, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-476-45187-9 .
  • Friederike C. Raderer, Ralf Wehmeier: It has to sound like a zoo - musician anecdotes. Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-15-010654-9 .
  • Manuel Schnitzer: Rabbi Lach and his stories - Jewish anecdotes , Anaconda Verlag GmbH, Cologne 2015, ISBN 978-3-7306-0295-9
  • Hermann Schüling: Catalog of a collection of anecdote books . (= Special collections of the Giessen University Library; 1). Giessen University Library, Giessen 1982 ( digitized version ).
  • Volker Weber: anecdote. The other story. Forms of the anecdote in German literature, historiography and philosophy. Stauffenberg, Tübingen 1993, ISBN 3-923721-29-3 .
  • Matthias Steinbach (ed.): How the Gordian knot was untied. Anecdotes from world history, explained historically. Stuttgart: Reclam 2011. ISBN 978-3-15-020227-2 ; review

Web links

Wiktionary: anecdote  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ A collection of anecdotes of all kinds
  2. Humor is the swim belt
  3. Niemetz: Anecdotes and caricatures for history lessons
  4. Connection - Genius and everyday life of the famous & crazy ( Memento from November 9, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  5. a b Matthias Nöllke: anecdotes, stories and metaphors
  6. a b See Duden online: Anecdote
  7. a b c Doris Kunschmann: The great anecdotes lexicon. The funny spice for speech, lecture and conversation. Bassermann, Niedernhausen im Taunus 1999, ISBN 3-8094-0736-4 .
  8. Goettingen Virtual Museum of Antiquities - The image of Alexander in ancient literature and art