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"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.)
Anime and Manga
- 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 a 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.
- 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!"
- 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.
- The Bravest Little Tailor's misadventures started when he bragged about killing seven flies with one swipe, but the time the King hears about it, it becomes "Killing Seven Giants in One Stroke". In many versions, including the Disney version starring Mickey Mouse as the tailor, the tailor fails to specify exactly what it was he killed, proclaiming only that he killed seven at one blow. Thus does his trouble start when someone intent on telling the king about this feat barges in while the king is lamenting at the giant problem they're having right now.
- Happens in Love Actually when a British character visits Portugal to propose - the rumour rapidly escalates from "he wants to marry Aurelia" to "he wants to kill Aurelia!"
- Done tragically in Fury. A man is arrested on flimsy circumstantial evidence for a kidnapping affair, and gossip quickly degenerates it to the point that an Angry Mob forms to lynch him.
- May or may not have happened in Finding Nemo, since we don't hear the full story when it's told the first or last time, and what we actually hear from the final version has really happened. However, it's phrased so that Marlin sounds like a total Badass, when in reality he was more of an Action Survivor.
- By the time of the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart, William Wallace could shoot fireballs from his eyes and lightning from his arse.
- Lampshaded in the Michael Keaton gangster movie spoof Johnny Dangerously.
Prisoner: I didn't say that.
- This happens several times in Easy A, even before Olive starts to encourage it.
Olive: I worry about the way information circulates at this school.
- This is central to the plot of Gossip... unsurprisingly. In fact it deconstructs the potential damage it can cause.
- 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 the first Harry Potter book when it turned out that Harry's battle with Quirrell 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?"
- 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 titular 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.
- JRR 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...
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 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 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 News Radio 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.
- 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."
Yente: And that's what comes of men and women dancing!
- In the musical 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 2 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.
- Girl Genius does this often. Most notably in the aptly named chapter "Rumor Mill".
- This Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic shows how we got from 'love and tolerance' to 'god hates fags'.
- 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 good friends 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!
- 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 and 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.
- 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.
- 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.