The Origin of the Word “Story” Says Something about Who We Are and Where We’re Headed
The word story comes from the word history. Since all words retain the basic nature of their root, originally all stories were considered to be historical or true. They were narratives of real people and events. There was no such thing as a fictional or non-historical story. When people were sitting around the fire at night, and someone said, “Tell us a story,” what they were saying was, “Tell us some history about ourselves.”
I don’t know when the first fictional stories came into being (perhaps the 16th Century), but fiction was accepted as literature at least by the time the novel was invented, which was by the 18th if not the 17th Century, and, arguably, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was one of the earliest and most important examples.
Before that, I think most fictional tales were considered to be, and were even called, “fairy tales,” which the Brothers Grimm first began writing down in the early 19th Century. (Perhaps fairies were considered to be entertaining liars.) So at least before the 17th Century, when someone sat someone else down and said, “Let me tell you a story,” I believe the listener fully believed that what he was getting ready to hear was all true. Otherwise, it was considered a “tale,” and the most outrageous were called “tall tales.”
This says something about the times in which we live. As a people, we have come from a place of believing all stories to be true to a place where we have to ask, “Are you telling the truth?” or “Did that really happen?” We have grown accustomed to liars and lying.
A great example of how the word story has been debased is how we teach our children not to lie.
Instead of telling them not to lie, we say, “It’s wrong (or a sin) to tell a story.” It sounds too harsh to accuse a child of lying, so we call it “telling a story.” In the child’s mind, we are equating storytelling with lying. We have taken a word that originally meant to tell a factual narrative (history) and changed it to mean just the opposite: to lie. That is how we have corrupted language. And we want to defend that.
What we call “myth” today was once considered absolutely true. No one doubted the stories of King Arthur. They were considered part of British history. Today, you will find most of them in the science-fiction section of the bookstore. No one doubted the stories of the Bible. They were considered part of Jewish and Christian history. Today, most people consider them as mythological as the stories of King Arthur – even though there has never been one scientific or historical fact that ever disputed anything contained in the Bible.
Did you know the word myth means “narrative,” and that mythology means “the communication of a narrative?” In other words, mythology is nothing more than storytelling. All myths, like all stories, were originally considered to be true.
We know the stories of the Bible are true. They are history. I believe the stories of King Arthur are true as well, as is most of what is today considered “myth.” That doesn’t mean I believe all of King Arthur and all myths are 100% true; but it does means I believe they are based in fact and, like the word story, have degenerated with time. Uniquely, the Bible has not degenerated, because God’s Spirit has protected it. But everything else in our culture – our words, our language, our myths – have degenerated and been corrupted by Man.
The fact that we live in a doubting, lying culture doesn’t change the facts or truths of history. We can denigrate the words story and myth so that it seems that the stories and myths of the past are not true, but we cannot change the fact that they are true. All our changing attitudes about words show is how ignorant we are becoming culturally. So, not only are we liars and doubters, but we are ignorant as well. I think those ideas go hand in hand.
We don’t have to become like our culture. We have the power to reclaim words like story and myth, as well as the narratives they represent. We can redeem our culture, but only to the extent that we redeem the way we use words.
We are new creations in Christ. We are new wine in new wineskins. When we try to put new wine into old wineskins, the wineskins break.
New creations need new words and new language – God’s words, God’s language. Trying to use the world’s words and language – I’m talking about “world” from the Bible’s standpoint – to describe our experiences and journey is impossible without somehow bringing those experiences and journey down to the world’s level.
If I use a word like evolve to describe something God is doing in my life, that word brings with it all the world’s meanings and somehow brings my experience down to a lower level. God doesn’t describe the change in my life as evolution, so why should I? He compares my change to that of a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. A caterpillar doesn’t evolve into a butterfly, he is transformed. That is what God does in our lives when He changes us: he transforms us.
On the other hand, things in the world degenerate, become corrupt, disintegrate. Saying that they are “evolving” makes what is happening seem natural. It’s not. God doesn’t describe the world as “evolving;” He says it is degenerating, corrupting, disintegrating – in other words, it is becoming worse. That is His perspective, and it should be ours.
Words don’t become better with time, they become worse. The English language in Shakespeare’s day was richer than it is today. A 19th Century novel was richer than a novel today. Anyone care to compare Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling with Sir Walter Scott or Dickens?
We are people who are being transformed into the image of Christ while we live in a world that is constantly becoming worse. It’s supposed to be that way. We are supposed to shine as lights in the midst of darkness. We are going up while the world is going down. We are becoming “lighter” while the world is becoming “darker.” There should be a dramatic contrast between us and the world. If not, then something’s wrong.
The problem with Christians today is, often, they envy the world and want to be like it. Nothing can be more degenerate than that: butterflies wanting to be caterpillars. But look at Christendom. Do you see any difference between most Christians and most worldlings, other than the fact that some Christians go to church on Sunday?
Do I have a problem? You bet I do. I’m sick and tired of seeing Christians living like caterpillars when God had called us to be butterflies. I’m sick of myself as a caterpillar. I don’t want to be a worm stuck on a branch; I want to soar among the flowers! To do that, I have to start thinking differently, I have to start using words differently. I can’t imitate the world and expect to fly among the flowers – it’s impossible.
I have to change – be transformed, not evolve. God wants me to transform. The world wants me to evolve. It is my choice.
Waitsel Smith, September 27, 2007
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Comments from Readers Like You:
(Send me your comments and I’ll include them on this page.)
I just read your article on the “Origin of the Word Story”, and I think you might find it interesting to know that the word for “myth” in Arabic and Persian is pronounced like “oostoora,” which obviously links to “story”. To me that hints that at some point in history, “story” and “myth” were the same word. And that’s my two cents. – Halim
Thank you so much for sharing this today, Waitsel. I find it very interesting that you chose to send it out on the anniversary of the 9/11 bombings. May we always remember how we felt on this day twelve years ago, and may we always pass down the story of how the tragedy impacted our country. The stories of the Bible aren’t for our entertainment either, but to help us remember and learn from dramatic events in history that left the people of that day and culture completely changed. If we’re wise, we’ll dig deep, study, and learn from their instruction. – Terry, Atlanta
Thanks for all your great comments!
Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.