She told him that they said he knows what she learned about him saying I did what?
"He'd staggered in, covered in blood and mud, carrying a crossbow and, d'you know, when they went back to look there were seven dead men. By the time that sort of story had gone ten miles he'd be carrying an axe as well, and make that thirty dead men and a dog."
Whenever tales are spread mouth to mouth, particularly among Gossipy Hens
, every speaker adds something of their own, going as far as changing a bar brawl into raging war between four largest nations of whichever world the story is placed into.
This trope is mainly about the process, but also describes the outcome, even if the process wasn't shown on screen. Shrouded in Myth
is the outcome when this is used to exaggerate a character's Badassitude
to epic levels. Of course, this process must
have taken place to produce the legend; spreading false rumors about oneself in order to gain respect/fame/money/hot babes/whatever the character wants does not apply here. Malicious Slander
, alas, also develops through this.
The process is similar to a children's game, which goes by many names, such as Broken Telephone, Silent Post, Chinese Whispers and many more. In this game, one person in a line whispers a sentence into the next person's ear, and by the end of the line, the sentence has evolved into something unrecognizable, and probably lewd, too. When Played for Laughs
, the line will typically be incredibly small, such as around five people, while the final rumor will have nothing in common with the original.
Painfully common among certain political circles who shall be collectively known as "low-information voters", and beloved of the demagogues who rely on them for their paychecks. (The political leanings of said voters and demagogues are all over the map; therefore, if you're offended by this statement, you probably are one no matter what you believe.)
Compare Snowball Lie
and Memetic Mutation
, as well as the Chinese whispers
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Anime and Manga
- An early chapter in Mahou Sensei Negima! had an overheard conversation regarding Negi finding a Partner quickly evolve into a rumor about Negi being a visiting prince! More than 200 chapters later, this turned out to be Foreshadowing.
- A Mobile Fighter G Gundam audio play features a scene where the Five-Man Band and The Dragon engage in the standard shouting match...except that the latter is standing on Tokyo Tower's observation deck while the former is at the tower's base. Because of this, the banter quickly degrades into confusion.
Movie!Chibodee: I said, "After this, we're coming for you! Prepare yourself!"
Movie!Master: What?! Did you say "crazy balding shitty old man"?!
- This is part of Shonen Bat's M.O. in Paranoia Agent — as stories of him spread and mutate, he becomes more firmly entrenched in Tokyo's collective consciousness, making him all the more dangerous.
- Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin Himura, better known as Hitokiri Battousai, actually is as fearsomely skilled as all the stories say. However, people look at the body count he's racked up and assume he must be this huge, intimidating, bloodthirsty hulk of a man, when he's actually a short, skinny Technical Pacifist who wants nothing more than to atone for all the lives he's taken.
- When Mitsuhide of Sengoku Otome wants to help Nobunaga's reputation she sends her subordinates to spread rumors about how benevolent and kind she is, especially to children, and that these are her words. Now people are telling each other about how they must bring her the children to eat. The only thing that goes unchanged is that Mitsuhide is the one who started it.
- Dungeon Keeper Ami features a rather interesting case. Though the tales of Mercury's brilliant and innovative magic, as well as her prowess in battle, are rarely exaggerated (possibly because those defy understanding or belief in the first place). She somehow cannot for the life of her escape the ever-evolving-rumors of her supposed sexual deviancy. Of course, it doesn't help that she has many enemies that can benefit from any and all damage to her reputation.
- An Invoked Trope in First Try Series, where Barako paints herself as incredibly worried over her daughter, Sakura's safety in the hands of her teachers and team in hopes of it escalating. Subverted as Danzo quickly puts a stop to it and plays it straight by ruining Barako.
- In A Delicate Balance, one of these is responsible for Rainbow Dash believing that a love triangle is forming between three of her friends. Then subverted, as when Rarity hears the rumor she traces it back to the source and confirms the inaccuracy.
- In the Discworld book The Fifth Elephant, Vimes—with help, including a trained assassin and some tactical planning—dispatches seven bandits in a shot; however, as he predicts, the rumor spreads faster and wider. Eventually, he finds himself in a building miles away from where it happens, and overhears a conversation ending with "...and a dog."
- In Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "It's Perfectly True!", some literal Gossipy Hens pass around what becomes the story of five hens plucking all their feathers off and dying for the love of a rooster, though it started with nothing more than one hen removing just one feather.
- This happens with Matthew Stark in Cloud of Sparrows. He kills a number of men, and is witnessed a few times. Stories grow in the telling, so that it gets to the point where people think Matthew Stark is eight feet tall with a scar across one eye, never eats and only drinks whiskey, prefers beating women to shagging them, and only shags them when he's beaten them to within an inch of their lives. In fact, the real Stark is able to move around unnoticed simply by calling himself Matthews.
- At one point in Dune Paul is with a force of Fremen warriors which is ambushed by several Imperial Sardaukar, which the Fremen decimate. Paul somberly notes that as his reputation as the Fremen's holy savior grows, the stories will say that he single handedly killed scores of Sardaukar, even though he didn't even draw his knife.
- Inverted in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, when it turned out that Harry's battle at the end was "one of those rare occasions when the true story is even more strange and exciting than the wild rumors".
- Weirdly, at the end of every school year he gets into something very dangerous and fantastic and generally impressive to most people. He's frustrated that they think he's so special because he is usually just desperate to survive.
- In Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, why Lady Muriel's engagement was broken:
"And what reasons have you heard of for breaking off the engagement?"
"A good many," Arthur replied, and proceeded to count them on his fingers. "First, it was found that she was dying of—something; so he broke it off. Then it was found that he was dying of—some other thing; so she broke it off. Then the Major turned out to be a confirmed gamester; so the Earl broke it off. Then the Earl insulted him; so the Major broke it off. It got a good deal broken off, all things considered!"
"You have all this on the very best authority, of course?"
"Oh, certainly! And communicated in the strictest confidence! Whatever defects Elveston society suffers from, want of information isn't one of them!"
- The Wheel of Time: Several books in the series end like this, with an omniscent narrator describing gossip versions of the main event of the book. The narrator mentions several contradictory versions of the big epic battle but one important, portentuous detail that all the different rumors agree on. Something similar happens in-story several times as well, where characters hear twisted versions of events of the narration as rumors, sometimes even things the characters were present for. The rumors are usually wrong on important details, and the viewpoint characters are usually happy to know that their role in the real events remains obscure.
- At the end of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Robert Baratheon is killed while hunting a boar. As seen in Arya's POV shortly after, the rumors ascribe his death to one of several things, including choking on a fishbone, being poisoned at the table, and dying by eating an entire boar and rupturing at the table.
- In one 1632 short story, titled "Other People's Money" after the film, the epontymous mutual fund is started because of two words overheard at an inn and shared with speculators.
- In Wyrm, Mike spends days tracking down the source of a rumor about Richard Dworkin only to discover he himself started it.
- The children's book Hen Hears Gossip involves this, with Hen, who started the gossip by repeating what she "overheard," finding the message has turned into a slight against herself. Unlike in most stories, the characters follow the gossip train back to each source until they discover what the original message was.
- J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings features various examples, notably the gossip that spreads in the city Minas Tirith about the various going-ons and visiting protagonists.
- Both the tree people and cave dwellers in the Green-Sky Trilogy are inclined to this. With no written media to speak of, nearly all communication is by word of mouth. Raamo knows himself to be a plain person, who with his friends makes some unusual discoveries — the next thing he knows his kid sister is a Holy Child and he's The One Who Was Foretold In Prophecy...
- This occurs, and is discussed, in a McAuslan story, lampshading the strangeness of military jargon.
Live Action TV
- Done for comedy in Boy Meets World a few times. One notable went from, by way of Noodle Incident, "Topanga is pregnant" to "Cory and Topanga are looking to adopt a 14-year-old kid from China and need to overcome the language barrier". When Mr. Feeney informs Cory of this, he gives the original rumor in front of his parents, prompting Feeney to leave so that he may "inform the grocer about his misinformation." Point of reference: Topanga was never pregnant, but just going on a diet.
- The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
- London walks in on Maddie and Lance practicing CPR and mistakes it for them making out; she proceeds to tell Estaban, who tells Muriel, who tells everyone else. The rumor went from "I saw Maddie and Lance kissing in the other room" to "Maddie and Lance were making out in the other room, are secretly betrothed, and plan on running away to Vegas to have their own grape vineyard."
- The episode where they're in band class and the rumor goes from something about a guy making a move and there being some drama to them being in love, moving to Russia, and raising llamas.
- In As The Bell Rings, Skipper and Brooke are discussing how Skipper's supposed to meet her at her house so that they can do their science project, but that Skipper has to be careful because she has an overprotective dog named Bear. Guess what happens next.
- Poked fun at in The Andy Griffith Show in "Those Gossipin' Men". Andy picks up a bandage for Barney at the drugstore, claiming Barney hurt himself with his gun. Once the women of Mayberry get circulating this news over the phones, and after a good deal of Poor Communication Kills Aunt Bea believes Barney accidently shot himself and is dead. Only to discover Barney just pinched himself with the trigger and barely broke the skin. Andy rubs it in her face how it only took an hour from getting a cut to being declared dead. Andy continues to give her a hard time about how women always spread gossip, but the tables turn when a travelling shoe salesman from New York is mistaken for a Hollywood talent scout by the men of Mayberry in a similar manner. (With Aunt Bee's help.)
- On more than one occasion, Barney convinces a lot of people, possibly even most of the town, that Andy and Helen Crump are about to elope, based on his own misreading of evidence on hand. One instance was a mixup involving Andy being cited by a game warden because he left his wallet with his fishing license at home; his request for Barney to bring it to him at the justice of the peace office in the next county, was enough for Barney to recruit a wedding party to come with him.
- On Thirty Rock, Liz and Tracy started a rumor that rapper T.I. might show up at Kenneth's party in order to get people to come. By the time it got back to them, the word was that Kenneth was going to have an epic bash with T.I., Fall Out Boy and foxy boxing. Tracy hilariously didn't recognize it as his own rumor. As word got around about what an awesome party it would be a few of the celebrities they said were coming actually showed up.
- In the NewsRadio episode "The Station Sale," Joe says that last time Robertson Communications took over a station, they fired half the staff and made everyone else take pay cuts. When Beth repeats this, she says they fired half the staff and made everyone else get haircuts. When Catherine repeats it, she says, "At the last station Robertson bought, they eliminated Half and Half and made everyone eat cold cuts!"
- Played straight and then subverted on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Watch here.
- On one episode of The Mentalist, Jane exploits this effect to flush out a suspect. Since everyone at a party knows he's working with the police, he drops a few cryptic but dark hints about an authority figure's relationship to the deceased. By the time the story gets around to him again, the authority figure has become a girlfriend-beating date-raping sexual harasser. Based on the rumors, the suspect confronted the authority figure, in the sense of physically attacking him until restrained by the police. Alas, she wasn't the killer.
- An episode of Roger And The Rottentrolls used this: The final product detailed the accused as declaring "I am Eric Cantona!" before kicking a sheep up the backside.
- A MADtv sketch had a "telephone-style" version. A prisoner is trying to secretly spread the message about a jailbreak by having everyone whisper it to each other, but it quickly mutates into nonsense as it's repeated (including a person who ends up saying "Some of the guys are going to get together later tonight to read The Last of the Mohicans" every single time). The prisoner eventually resorts to writing the message down on a piece of paper and passing it around, but it still changes from person to person.
- Cliff Claven attempted to demonstrate this on Cheers by telling someone about having won a few dollars, only for it to circle the bar and be totally accurate because everyone focused on 'the loser bragging about having won $5'.
- Neds Declassified School Survival Guide to Rumors started this way. Ned was talking to Claire about his friend Moze, which Claire insisted wanted to be called Jennifer. Ned says he likes "Moze" (that is, to call his friend Moze), but this is misheard as "Ned likes Moze" and quickly evolves into "Ned and Moze are dating".
- The 1962 song "Do You Hear What I Hear?", written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, is told in the style of Chinese whispers, and describes how word of the birth of the baby Jesus is relayed to higher upon ever higher authority, starting with the "night wind", then "little lamb", then "shepherd boy", then "king", and finally "people everywhere".
- One Bloom County strip (the one done in a vastly different art style) starts with Milo telling Binkley that Opus has tickets to Cats. The only thing subsequent retellings have in common is vaguely rhyming words ("Opus tickled by rats"; "Opus picked; too fat").
- In Open Letter on Race Hatred, a dramatization of the 1943 Detroit race riot, the news of a fight on Belle Isle Bridge becomes increasingly garbled as rumors spread, "one for black ears—one for white ears."
- In "The Rumor" from Fiddler on the Roof, Yente brings the news that Perchik, who danced with Tevye's daughter Hodel, has been arrested in Kiev. The rumor spreads, and each time a different person is said to have been arrested. By the time the rumor comes full circle, this is what it has become: "Golde's been arrested, and Hodel's gone to Kiev. Motel studies dancing, and Tevye's acting strange. Shpritze has the measles, and Bielke has the mumps."
- In Thirteen, the song "It Can't Be True" revolves around Lucy the Alpha Bitch spreading a rumor that The Brainless Beauty, Kendra, is cheating on her boyfriend with new kid Evan. Every time the rumor passes to a new person, Kendra and Evan are rumored to have gone a little farther around the bases
- Woe from Wit: A major plot point in the classic Russian play, where the protagonist's eccentricity and nonconformism is quickly exaggerated by gossip to ridiculous extremes. Chatsky is reputed to have joined a Freemason club, drunk champagne by the bucketful, and generally gone irreparably insane, with more and more incredible details being "discovered" every minute.
- The plot of the play Spreading the News.
- In Baldur's Gate, after clearing the mines random NPCs will describe the PC's party as nine-foot tall superstrong and supermagical people. The player has the option to cop to being the heroes (they're not believed), or add that "I heard these heroes are handsome to boot."
- Varric of Dragon Age II intentionally twists your story around, whether he's your best friend or your worst enemy. Eventually, you might hear that you managed to slay a High Dragon with a wooden spoon, while naked. It's hard to tell how much, if any of it, was exagerrated in re-tellings, though.
- The sheer amount of this present in the legend of Hawke, becoming more and more garbled in each retellings, means that by 9:40 Dragon, a mere three years after the events at the Gallows, the Seekers have been forced to go straight to the source; capturing Varric and forcing him to tell them the true story.
- Homestar Runner: One of Strong Badia's national symbols, the Bear Holding a Shark, was created when two of the constellations of the Strong Badian zodiac, a fish and a long distance runner, teamed up to beat up all the other constellations. It became the Bear-Plus-Shark we know today through many re-tellings and the telephone game.
- In the Orange Islands arc of We Are All Pokémon Trainers, a Funny Background Event about Silent's Masquerain hunting a Sewaddle builds up into a story about an evil Pokémon that goes around eating Bug-type mons. Upon reaching the other side of the archipelago, the story is somehow about either a Grass-type fire-spitting monster, or a giant wooden monster, that ate an entire island of Pokémon and forced countless others to migrate. For added benefit, there are actual fire-spitting Grass Pokémon and wooden monsters completely unrelated to either news.
- The titular character from Doug has a rumor that goes from Vice Principal Bone putting out a "supernova" cherry bomb science project... to Doug's science project (a model of a volcano) blowing up the entire science lab. Doug even thinks he's going to go to jail for it.
- In Avatar The Last Airbender, two feuding tribes each think that their ancestor was betrayed by the others' a hundred years ago. Aang, who was alive at this time, tells them it was just a game they were playing, and actually the ancestors were siblings who got along great despite their differences. This allows the two tribes to reconcile and continue their journey together. This turns out to be an Invoked Trope, as Aang made up the story entirely, believing that they would think Gossip Evolution had occurred.
- US Acres has Sheldon telling Booker about a scary story he heard from Orson, and this eventually turns into a rumor about a monster loose on the farm, which leads to Orson changing to his "Power Pig" alter-ego and attacking a scarecrow.
- In The Simpsons episode "Grade School Confidential", Principal Skinner and Mrs Krabappel are caught kissing in a closet. The event undergoes a Gossip Evolution as each child tells their parents:
Milhouse Van Houten: ...and then Bart opened the door and Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel were kissing — and swearing!
Pahusacheta Nahasapeemapetilon: Father! Uncle Apu! A teacher was in the closet with the principal and he had as many arms as Vishnu and they were all very busy.
Lisa Simpson: I was in the library at the time, but Janey told me that Principal Skinner and Bart's teacher, Mrs. — what's her name?
Marge Simpson: Krabappel?
Lisa Simpson: Yeah, Krabappel. They were naked in the closet together.
Marge Simpson: Oh, my goodness.
Homer Simpson: Wait a minute. Bart's teacher is named Krabappel? I've been calling her Crandall! Why didn't someone tell me? Ohh, I've been making an idiot of myself!
Ralph Wiggum: Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner were in the closet making babies and I saw one of the babies and then the baby looked at me.
- Another (particularly hilarious) example is in "The PTA Disbands", where Bart tries to prolong the teachers' strike by spreading the rumor that Skinner has been saying that the teachers will crack any day now. By the time it reaches Ms. Krabappel, it is entirely unchanged... except it incongruously includes the words "purple monkey dishwasher" at the end. Krabappel vows that they'll show Skinner, "especially for that purple monkey dishwasher remark!" The words "Purple Monkey Dishwasher" have even become somewhat of a meme.
- Yet another example is in "The War of the Simpsons": After Homer catches and releases the legendary catfish General Sherman, we hear the resulting rumor.
"Went by the name of Homer. Seven feet tall he was, with arms like tree trunks. His eyes were like steel: cold, hard. Had a shock of hair, red, like the fires of Hell."
- In a story on PB&J Otter, Flick panics when his Mama Duck tells him that his cousin Billy is coming for a visit, because he remembers Flick as a bully who once sat on him for "like, four minutes" when he was really little. As the tale spreads, it ends up becoming "four months" and everyone panics about Billy being such a bully. As it turns out, Flick's memory is faulty, so even his account was exaggerated. Back when Flick was really young, he insisted that Billy ride him piggyback, even though Billy didn't think it was such a good idea. Billy accidentally squashed him for maybe two seconds at most.
- One episode of Handy Manny revolved entirely around this, replacing the "broken telephone" with a broken drive-thru speakerbox, which lead to spoken food orders winding up as completely managed gibberish by the time they reached their destination.
- One of the Private Snafu shorts begins with Snafu being informed that it looks like a good day for a bombing, taking this to mean that they're about to get bombed, and spreading to others who in turn spread it until it becomes a rumor that they're about to lose the war. (In a nice touch of visual metaphor, the passage of the rumors is represented by baloney flying out of people's mouths.)
- Done in King of the Hill's pilot episode which leads to the plot. A couple of women spot Hank's anger with Buckley and his son with a black eye (caused by a swung baseball) at the Mega-Lo-Mart. The gossip is spread to other women thinking he's an abusive father and assaults clerks and inform child protective services.
- On Jimmy Two-Shoes, Lucius asks for Jimmy and Beezy to come to his office. This message gets passed onto several Misery Inc. workers before reaching Beezy, who tells Jimmy "Smell cheesy and bum to my crawfish". After a moment of confusion, it turns out that Beezy made that from scratch, then repeats the message perfectly.
- In Disney's "Brave Little Tailor", Mickey's misadventures start when he brags about killing seven flies with one swipe, but the time the King hears about it, it has become "killing seven giants in one stroke".
- This trope is instrumental in the creation of Urban Legends. Some urban legends start off as real stories which are exaggerated through multiple retellings into something more shocking and memorable. This is also why documented urban legends have different versions.
- The children's game, Telephone aka Chinese Whispers, is built on this trope. Hilarity Ensues.
- A Russian-Jewish joke: "Did you hear that Rabinovich just won a car in a lottery?" "Why, yes. But that wasn't Rabinovich but Tzipperovich, that wasn't a lottery but a card game, that wasn't a car but a dacha, and that wasn't a win, that was a lose".
- Russian Humour is fond of these in general, often putting them in the form of Radio Yerevan jokes, usually with implications of censorship as well:
Caller: Is it true that in Moscow, Mercedes cars are being given to citizens?
: Yes, but it is not Moscow but Leningrad, not Mercedes
, and not given to but stolen from.
: Is it true that comrade cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
's car was stolen in Moscow during the celebrations?
Radio Yerevan: In principle yes, but it was not in Moscow but Kiev, and it was not his car but his bike, and it was not comrade cosmonaut Gagarin but comrade high school teacher Gagarin, and his first name was not Yuri but Leonid...
- Various online fandom and meta communities are notorious for this, often with huge doses of Accentuate the Negative, Demonization, and Twisting Their Words at best and the Abomination Accusation Attack at worst. For example, someone who paid off an organized criminal 20 years ago to save their life or their career will become a current full-fledged mob kingpin, or the details of a squicky or tragic incident that could happen to anyone will be exaggerated to put all the blame on one person. While none will be named to avoid the likely Flame War, everyone from creators and artists to other fans can become a target to the extent that people who have never even had any bad experiences with them or who do not even know someone who has in any meaningful way can and will hate them solely on the basis of the community consensus.
- It's been suggested that the tradition of Saint Lawrence of Rome being killed in a giant grill originated in a transcription error that changed the word "martyred" to the morbidly specific "roasted". The two words are one letter apart in Latin.
- The French historian Marc Bloch described this as an occupational hazard of historiography:
"[The historian] is as if at the rear of a column, in which the news travels from the head back through the ranks. It is not a good vantage-point from which to gather correct information. Not so very long ago, during a relief march at night, I heard the word passed down the length of a column in this manner: 'Look out! Shell holes to the left!' The last man received it in the form, 'To the left!', took a step in that direction, and fell in."