- adj. of doubtful authenticity.
Apocryphal the adjective is derived from the word Greek apokryphos (ἀπόκρυφος), meaning “that which is hidden”—or, alternatively, through Latin apocryphus. It originally simply indicated writings (usually of a religious or religio-historical nature) which were not part of a canon. This could have been anything: alternative gospels, for instance, or other texts, some of which were considered holy writings and some of which were considered heretical1. The heretical would have included the range of Gnostic gospels, which is the first time we see apocrypha used. It is not long, then, before Irenaeus and Tertullian use apocryphal interchangeably with “forged” and “false”2. It was cemented by the time of Augustine, and probably earlier.
The original use of the word—that is, non-pejorative—does still survive in some sense. Since there has always been some doubt about the authenticity of canonicity of some books (Luther moved “apocryphal” books to the end of the New Testament, for instance, and excised about seven heretofore-canonical books from the Old Testament—he just felt like it, apparently), some books which are considered non-heretical but extra-biblical. The King James version of the Bible (historically) had a large section of apocrypha, like First and Second Esdras, the Book of Wisdom, and First and Second Maccabees).
The more common usage of the word, especially outside of theology in general and Catholic theology in particular, is to refer to something that spurious or false, but has an air of legitimacy that makes it stubbornly persistent. Urban legends are a good example of “apocryphal” stories. And perhaps if you’ve ever tried to tell someone that Barack Obama didn’t attend a madrassa, or how you can’t ostensibly unlock your car via cellphone, you might understand what the early church fathers felt like, railing against Gnostics and Marcionites and Arians.