Final Word

Story, history, tall story and stepping in it

Tall story.jpg

 First came the story, then history, followed by tall stories – and if you are not careful in-between, you can step into some smelly stuff.

Way back in time, before the advent of writing, knowledge about past events were relayed from generation to generation by what is known as the oral tradition. To a lesser extent this tradition still continues, although it is not the most reliable of sources.

The ancient Greeks called this retelling of the narrative of the past ἱστορία (‘inquiry’or ‘knowledge from inquiry’). The word landed in Classical Latin as historia, to mean ‘investigation, inquiry, research, account, description, written account of past events, writing of history, historical narrative, recorded knowledge of past events, story or narrative’.

The two Greek scholars, Herodotus and Thucydides, in the 5th century BC, became the first formal historians in the Western tradition, creating written records of the past.

In this respect Asia was ahead of the West by a few hundred years with a ‘state chronicle’, known as the Spring and Autumn Annuals, dating back to 722 BC.

The word ‘history’, as we know it today, arrived in the English language early in the 13th century via Old Irish or Old Welsh as stær. It is not clear why, but the word fell out of use by the late Old English period, only to make a reappearance via Anglo-Norman as ‘history’ during the Middle English period.

Some variants of the original word, like istorie and estoire survived, particularly in the word ‘story’, meaning narrative of real or imaginary events, dating from around the 1460s.

According to an article in Wikipedia the restriction to the meaning of ‘history’ as ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with past events; the formal record or study of past events, and especially human affairs, arose in the mid-fifteenth century, with a distinction between ‘history’ and ‘storytelling’.

In the wake of this ‘restriction’ would follow adjectives like ‘historical’, in 1661, and ‘historic’ in 1669 and nouns like ‘historian’ in 1531.

Story’s own life

In the meantime, the word ‘story’ took on a life of its own, from meaning a narrative of important events or celebrating persons from the past, first recorded in the late 14th century, to a narrative of fictitious events for entertainment to a euphemism for a lie in the 1690s.

In 1892 it was first used to refer to a newspaper article. A bit earlier, in 1818, the expression ‘that’s another story’ was born, and ‘story-line’ comes from 1941.

One of the more interesting story expressions is the one used to describe an exaggeration to the extent that it becomes an outright lie: ‘Now that is a tall story.’

There is some debate as to its origin, but the more plausible explanation seems to be that ‘tall story’ was coined in 19th century in England, where the stories were also called Munchausens, after Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Münchhausen, a known purveyor of extravagantly untruthful stories about himself.

The Americans developed a variant of their own, ‘tall talk’, or ‘tall tales’ and ‘tall writing’, for stories that get embellished on in the retelling.

Final word

And then, finally, there is the often toxic mix of imagination/fiction and the truth, locked up in folklore.

If you miss a trick in a column like this about the origin of words, you can easily put your foot into you-know-what.

In this regard I came across the following passage on the Mentalfloss website under the heading “13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)”:

“Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around – but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true.”

Some time ago, using an Australian source, I claimed that the word ‘sh*t’ comes from an instruction to Australian ships involved the harvesting of bird guano from islands, with regard to their cargos’ potentially explosive by-product of methane gas, to ‘store high in transit’.

I’m afraid that by relating this folklorish account with maybe not enough qualification, I might have put my foot in that stuff, for which I apologise.

The truth, as told by Mentalfloss, is: “Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel – until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows.

“But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of ‘ship high in transit’, a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, ‘sh*t’ – like most of our best curse words – is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.”

by Piet Coetzer

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