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Why are the floors of a building called “stories”?

Dear Cecil:

What is the origin of the term "story" when applied to a building?

Vaughn C., Scottsdale, Arizona

Cecil replies:

I hesitate to go into this, Vaughn, but what the heck, you’re old enough. A century ago etymologists speculated that “story” came from some lost word “stairy,” perhaps related to Gaelic staidhir, flight of stairs; or possibly from something along the lines of “stagery,” derived from “stage.” Others dismissed these as being obviously born of desperation, and for a time the experts settled on Old French estoree, a thing built. But doubts arose when researchers dug up such phrases as una historia octo fenestrarum, “a story of eight windows,” from medieval Latin history books. Historia in Roman times meant history or story, and by the Middle Ages had acquired the meaning of “picture.” So the charming notion arose that medieval folk were in the habit of installing rows of windows in their buildings called “stories” that were decorated with paintings or sculpture. The theory is that these stories, which for all anybody knows may actually have told a story, eventually came to signify a level of a building. Apparently as evidence of this practice, the authors of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins cite the fact that they once visited a Swiss-style hotel decorated along these lines in Lake Placid, New York. (Each floor was tricked out with a large hand-lettered slogan, such as “The only way to multiply happiness is to divide it.”) At any rate, conjecture has now hardened into conviction. Believe at your own risk.

Cecil Adams

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