History (etymology)

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The word history is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *wid-tor-, from the root *weid-, "to know, to see". This root is also present in the English word wit, in latin words vision and video, in the Sanskrit word veda, and in the Slavic word videti and vedati, as well as others. (The asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical construction, not an attested form.)

The Ancient Greek word ἱστορία, istoría, means "knowledge acquired by investigation, inquiry". This is the sense in which it is used by Aristotle in his Περί Τά Ζωα Ιστορία, Peri Ta Zoa Istória or, in Latinized form, Historia Animalium.[1] The term is derived from ἵστωρ, hístōr meaning wise man, witness, or judge. We can see early attestations of ἵστωρ in Homeric hymns, Heraclitus, the Athenian ephebes' oath, and in Boiotic inscriptions (in a legal sense, either "judge" or "witness," or similar). The spirant is problematic, and not present in cognate Greek eídomai ("to appear"). The form historeîn, "to inquire", is an Ionic derivation, which spread first in Classical Greece and ultimately over all of Hellenistic civilization.

It is still in the Greek sense that Francis Bacon used the term in the late 16th century, when he talked about "natural history". For him, historia is "the knowledge of objects determined by space and time", that sort of knowledge provided by memory (while science was provided by reason, and poetry was provided by fantasy). Because such knowledge is often described in a narrative or descriptive form, the word has come to mean a record of events ordered chronologically. [1]

The word entered the English language in 1390 with the meaning of "relation of incidents, story". In Middle English, the meaning was "story" in general. The restriction to the meaning "record of past events", in the sense of Herodotus, arose in the late 15th century. In German, French, and indeed, most Romance and Germanic languages, this distinction was never made, and the same word is used to mean both "history" and "story". The adjective historical is attested from 1561, and historic from 1669. [2]

Historian in the sense of a "researcher of history", however, is attested from 1531, and in all European languages, the substantive "history" is still used to mean "what happened among human beings" and "the scholarly study of what happened". In German, an attempt was made to distinguish between Histoire and Geschichte, but it failed. One solution sometimes used in English is to write the word for "the study of history" with a capital letter: History. Another solution that has been used is to reserve the word "historiography" for that sense. [1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ferrater-Mora, José. Diccionario de Filosofia. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel, 1994.
  2. Whitney, W. D. The Century dictionary; an encyclopedic lexicon of the English language. New York: The Century Co, 1889.