A legend, in the primary sense of the word, is a story which has been handed down from an earlier age and tells of the exploits of a heroic, saintly, or otherwise famous individual. (The word is also applied to a group of such stories, e.g., ‘Arthurian legend’ (without the definite or indefinite article) means ‘the collection of stories about King Arthur’.) Often the story told in a legend cannot be supported by historical evidence or may be known not to be true, and for this reason legend is sometimes contrasted with history, or historical fact, i.e., statements about the past which are known to be true or have a strong evidential base.
A legend may also be a modern or contemporary story passed on by word of mouth and resembling a traditional legend in telling of the activities of a well-known figure. (See also Urban legend.) Derivatively, the word legend may be applied to the person about whom remarkable stories or legends are told: thus well-known actors such as Sir John Gielgud or Sir Laurence Olivier are sometimes described as ‘legends of the theatre’ or ‘theatre legends’, and a person who is extraordinarily famous while he (or she) is still alive may be said to be ‘a legend in his (or her) lifetime’.
In numismatics legend is the word for the inscription on a coin, and in heraldry for the motto beneath a coat of arms, while in many disciplines the word is used to refer to the explanatory material accompanying a map, diagram, picture, or the like. These uses, unlike those in the preceding paragraphs, clearly reflect the etymology of the word: legend comes from the Latin legenda, the neuter plural of the gerundive of the verb legĕre (‘to read’), and means ‘(passages) to be read’ - legenda were originally, in the Middle Ages, (written) accounts of the lives of Christian saints, i.e., recommended reading material for the faithful.
- Rather differently, Legend is the title of a 2015 film about the criminal careers of the Kray twins, Ronnie (1933-1995) and Reggie (1933-2000), the leaders of a powerful criminal gang in East London in the 1950s and 1960s. (The twins were eventually arrested in 1968 and sentenced to life imprisonment in the following year.) The film, directed by Brian Helgeland, is adapted from John Pearson’s book, The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins (1972, Paperback 1995).
See also Myth.