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.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the origins of the words “history” and “inquiry.” They do not share the same root.
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