According to Etymonline, history comes from the same root as story. If they are from the same word, where does hi- come from? Is it just because of the English habit of taking names from other languages verbatim or is there something more to it?

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    This question is a tad backwards, because looking at the etymology, it's rather clear that it's not a prefix that was added to form "history", but rather a part of the word was lost to form "story". Why that happened, however, is not obvious, so it's still a fair question to ask.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 23:20
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    Wait until we hear herstory.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 7:37
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    @Kristory We deprecate constraining people to his/herstory on ELU. The consensus here is that theirstory is the natural expression. Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 23:22

3 Answers 3


If you look more closely you will see that the hi- was there originally, in Greek historia from which it was borrowed into Latin. The initial syllable was weakened and sometimes dropped in Late Latin, and reduced to e- in Old French, from which the word was borrowed into Middle English.

In ME it shows up as historie, istorie, estorie and histoire, all representing OF forms, probably influenced by Latin – for of course Latin was still a living written language of learning and scholarship. Alongside these a “native” version, with the initial syllable entirely dropped, began to show up; this appears as storie, stor, storri, with plurals stories, storise, storius, and storien.

All these forms were used indifferently for any narrative account, whether formal chronicle or patent romance. It was not until Early Modern English – the 16th century – that spellings and forms began to shake down– probably, again, influenced by the status of Latin as the principal language of learning – into the contrasting history = factual narrative and story = fictional narrative.

Note that to this day French histoire means both story and history – as does the corresponding term in German, Geschichte. I imagine this is true in many other European languages.

This simplified contrast is rightly challenged by Arlen Beiler and John Lawler: story embraces any narrative, not only fictional narratives, and the two terms have never completely separated. But by and large, history has come to mean the product of the academic discipline, while story has come to mean an engrossing narrative. OED 1 puts it rather neatly, I think, under Story 4 e [story of a life, institution, etc. ]:

Originally = HISTORY 4 b; but in modern use (from association with Sense 5) implying that the course of events referred to has the kind of interest which it is the aim of fiction to create.

I must also acknowledge that over the past two generations historiographers have grown skeptical of the Rankean eigentlich gewesen and are much more conscious of the element of mythopoesis in their work; so in a sense history is collapsing back into story.

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    Story = fictional narrative? According to Google, a story is an account of something (real, imagined, or false), whereas history is the events behind a story. War stories are history, but war history is not stories, it is hate, blood, and killing (with a few exceptions). Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 0:04
  • Sorry, here's a link to the Google Dictionary. Story: goo.gl/60Nhl, History: goo.gl/uO8Nz Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 0:11
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    Story means a narrative. Period. A bunch of utterances, mostly linked by "and then". History is a specialized version of the general story; they have different senses even though they come from the same root. But one can say the same for kind and gentle, or for skirt and shirt. Every word has a unique history. Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 0:17
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    @Kris Or ... History is the stories people believe. Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 7:54
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    @StoneyB It is an art and not a science. But it is more than "stories which people believe". A classic instance of that, in the news tonight, has been the Hillsborough inquiry (if you are familiar). The overwhelming public view, that the 96 Liverpool football fans died in (1989) as a result of hooligan activity was widely held in Britain, fuelled by tabloid newspaper headlines, and what is now known to have been a massive cover-up by the Sheffield police of their own inadequate crowd control measures. A public inquiry (using the sort of methods historians employ) has exposed the whole myth.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 18:43

In the grammar of the Greek language there are signs signifying either quantity or quality. These are two: the " Dhasia", which is pronounsed as the English letter "h" and the "psili". The word "istoria" -in Greek "ιστορία" takes Dhasia above the letter "I" and therefore is pronounced historia or history. An example: in the word Ellen (name) the letter "E" takes Dhasia and is pronounced Helen.

  • This doesn't explain the "i" at all, and it only explains the "h" from the perspective of the Greek spelling system, which doesn't seem to be what the questioner was looking for.
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 9:21

I like This Is Where the Word 'History' Comes From by Katy Steinmetz dated June 23 2017, because she interviewed Dr. Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor, OED.

American inventor Henry Ford famously said that history is “more or less bunk.” Others have characterized history differently: as the essence of innumerable biographies, as a picture of human crimes and misfortunes, as nothing but an agreed upon fable, as something that is bound to repeat itself.

It’s hard to define such a monumental thing without grappling with the tensions between what is fact and what is fiction, as well as what was included and what was left out. So it’s only fitting that those tensions are wrapped up in the history of the word itself.

The short version is that the term history has evolved from an ancient Greek verb that means “to know,” says the Oxford English Dictionary’s Philip Durkin. The Greek word historia originally meant inquiry, the act of seeking knowledge, as well as the knowledge that results from inquiry. And from there it’s a short jump to the accounts of events that a person might put together from making inquiries — what we might call stories.

The words story and history share much of their lineage, and in previous eras, the overlap between them was much messier than it is today. “That working out of distinction,” says Durkin, “has taken centuries and centuries.” Today, we might think of the dividing line as the one between fact and fiction. Stories are fanciful tales woven at bedtime, the plots of melodramatic soap operas. That word can even be used to describe an outright lie. Histories, on the other hand, are records of events. That word refers to all time preceding this very moment and everything that really happened up to now.

The distinction is still messier than that, of course. Plenty of stories — like the story of a person’s life or a “true story” on which a less-true film is based — are supposed to be factual. And plenty of stories defy easy categorization one way or the other. Take the notion of someone telling their side of a story. To them, that account might be as correct as any note about a president’s birthplace. To someone else, that account might be as incorrect as the notion that storks deliver babies. Yet the word stands up just fine to that stress because the term story has come to describe such varying amounts of truth and fiction.

As the linguistic divide has evolved since the Middle Ages, we have come to expect more from history — that it be free from the flaws of viewpoint and selective memory that stories so often contain. Yet it isn’t, humans being the imperfect and hierarchical creatures that they are and history being something that is made rather than handed down from some omniscient scribe.

That is why feminists, for example, rejected the word history and championed the notion of herstory during the 1970s, says Dictionary.com’s Jane Solomon, “to point out the fact that history has mostly come from a male perspective.” The “his” in history has nothing, linguistically, to do with the pronoun referring to a male person. And some critics pointed that out back in the 1970s, saying that the invention of herstory showed ignorance about where the word comes from. But sociolinguist Ben Zimmer says there’s evidence that the feminists knew as much at the time. And more importantly, the fact that it sounds plausible that there would be a link can still tell us something.

Take the fact that similar plays on the word have been made by people in other marginalized groups too: When jazz musician Sun Ra quipped that “history is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet,” that statement might have nothing to do with etymology but it can suggest a lot about race and whether an African-American viewpoint is included in the tales passed down in textbooks. That’s why, even if the origins of the word “history” are clear, the question of who gets to decide which version of the past is the right one remains a contentious debate centuries after the term came to be.

“The narrative element has always been there,” Zimmer says. In some ways, the apocryphal tale about how history came to describe accounts of the past “plays on what has been hiding in that word all along.”

See also Story, storey, and history.

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