Story, History, and Meaning

In the episode of Faith, Fern and Compass we posted this week, Alison and I talked a bit about stories, and what their purpose might be. Is storytelling something with evolutionary origins? If so, what? And why? It’s a completely open question, but an essential one: stories and histories, real or imagined, provide entertainment, bind communities together, give our lives meaning and provide guidance and comfort in difficult times. As we discuss in the podcast, figuring out how to cultivate storytelling and other types of art — while somehow accommodating the social upheaval they inevitably give rise to — is critical. As Susan Biali says, “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature.”

MoonWithTrainAfter the podcast, I went back and looked a little deeper into the etymologies of history and story. There is an unfortunate urban legend that history literally means, and comes from, the words “his story”, and while there is a faint glimmer of truth in that — and of course the deeper, more abstract truth, that what we call “history” is too often the story of what dead white guys were doing — the fact is that history and story have more to do with wizard than anything else. These are all the same word, at root; they ultimately arise from a term meaning one who is wise.

With wizard it’s most obvious: the Proto Indo European weid, meaning “to see” or “to know” descended into Proto Germanic as wisaz and Old English as wis. In Middle English it was combined with the suffix -ard, indicating one who is or does (as in coward, drunkard), and made to mean one who is wise — perhaps even too wise.

But in Greek, this same Proto Indo European root weid became his (“wise”), and was combined with tor (“one who is or does”) to mean, basically, wizard; and the term histor was often used to mean “old man, wise man, judge”. A historia, then, would be a tale told by such a wizard. It was borrowed directly into Latin, and thence into French, becoming estorie.

It was then borrowed twice by English — once to become history, and once to become story. For a long time these two words were just two versions of the same term, like want to and wanna, but eventually story (the less formal version) took on connotations of ficticiousness and frivolity and went its own way.

Spiritually both history and story share connotations of a fertile, abundant path through grounded, earthy territory, rounding up with powerful motion that ends in an expression of fortitude and stamina. The hi- at the beginning of history adds a depth of rootedness, of something arising from a hearth and home. It is this rootedness that gives history its peculiar power to give guidance, bind communities, and infuse our lives with meaning.

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