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I've always thought that an anecdote was a short funny story that had actually never happened, but was rather created by common people in order to satirize, ridicule or to laugh at someone. But recently I noticed that native English speakers usually call it simply "joke". For example "Let me tell you a joke. One day a French, an American and an Italian meet at one restaurant..." If it's really the case, then what is an anecdote then? Would the word "anecdote" mean something else or, perhaps, something more specific for native English speakers? How often they use this word?

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Anecdote is a very common false friend for native speakers of Russian (and other Slavic languages, I believe). In Russian, анекдот means exactly what you describe: "a short fictitious funny story, a joke". In English, it does not. Here's the Merriam-Webster definition:

a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident

And here's what Wiktionary has to say:

  1. A short account of an incident, often humorous.
  2. An account which supports an argument, but which is not supported by scientific or statistical analysis.
  3. A previously untold secret account of an incident
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Thank You for this input. "In Russian, анекдот means exactly what you describe: "a short fictitious funny story, a joke" - as far as I know, Russian word for anecdote also means a true, yet an unusual story: "What an anecdote happened to us yesterday!!!" - a common phrase in Russian. –  brilliant Nov 28 '10 at 7:47
    
In Russia, you don't tell joke, joke tells you! –  Mike Brown Jan 27 '11 at 22:57
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An anecdote is a short story that actually happened, traditionally (but not necessarily) one that happened to the speaker.

On the other hand, a joke is an amusing story1, traditionally (but not necessarily) one that is made up.

Quick chart:

            Humourous   | Not Humorous
Real     | Either word2 |   Anecdote
Made Up  |    Joke      |   Fiction

1 Since you mentioned satire and ridicule, that would typically be a joke, but a joke may simply be funny without being satirical or ridiculous.

2 Typically, though, this would be an anecdote.

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As far as I know, a story that actually happened is never a joke, even if humorous; it's just a funny story. Unless it's a practical joke, but that's something else altogether. –  Rahul Narain Nov 28 '10 at 6:24
    
@Rahul Thinking it through, I think while "joke" wouldn't be wrong, "anecdote" is definitely the better word. I've edited to reflect that. –  waiwai933 Nov 28 '10 at 6:27
    
WOW!!! Waiwai933, thank You so much for this chart!!! –  brilliant Nov 28 '10 at 6:34
    
I think it's important to emphasize that in English, an anecdote need not be funny or even amusing (e.g. anecdotal evidence). –  Marthaª Nov 28 '10 at 7:54
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