Dear Perp, Very interesting question, which I’ve never thought about. I guess a good place for you to have begun looking would have been in a dictionary. Also, I don’t think you are right about the use of ‘stories’ being unique to America.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary
STORY noun 1. a complete horizontal section of a building, having one continuous or practically continuous floor. 2. the set of rooms on the same floor or level of a building. 3. any major horizontal architectural division, as of a façade or the wall of a nave. 4. a layer [1350–1400; Middle English ‘storie’ from Anglo-Latin ‘historia’ picture decorating a building, a part of the building so decorated, hence floor, story from Latin ‘historia’ history]
Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology
STORY noun: floor of a building. Before 1384, borrowed Anglo-Latin ‘historia’ picture, floor of a building, from Latin ‘historia’ history; perhaps so called because the front of buildings in the Middle Ages often were decorated with rows of painted windows; ‘-story’ is found in early use in the term ‘clerestory’ (1412)
I've often wondered about this myself but never got around to looking it up. I had assumed that the two distinct meanings of ‘story’ (or ‘storey’ as the British spell the word meaning 'floor of a building') must have derived from separate roots. Not so.
The view that the architectural sense of ‘story’ comes from Old French ‘estorer,’ to build or furnish, is generally discounted because the evidence points in a different direction.
‘Story’ in the sense of 'a narrative' appeared around 1200. It came into English through Old French from Latin ‘historia’ account, tale, story. The ultimate origin is Greek ‘historia’ 'learning or knowing by inquiry,' from the verb ‘historein,’ to inquire, and the noun ‘histor,’ a wise man or judge. The word is related to ‘idein’ to see, and ‘eidenai’ to know. English ‘story’ originally meant 'a historical narrative', but by the 16th century, ‘history’ came to be used for a factual narrative of past events, and ‘story’ meant a fictitious tale: "Sum singis, sum dancis, sum tellis storeis" -- Some sing, some dance, some tell stories (Dunbar, ‘Poems,’ 1500-1520).
So that's all very straightforward, etymologically speaking. But take a look at this quotation from Robert of Gloucester's ‘Chronicle’ in 1400: "Hii begonne her heye tounes strengthy vaste aboute, Her castles & storys...." The reference is to fortifying towns and adding "stories" or upper levels to castle towers.
Records from the 13th and 14th centuries indicate that the Anglo-Norman word ‘historia’ had the meaning of 'a picture' or 'a tier of painted windows or of sculptures'. A 12th century abbot completed "unam istoriam" in the main tower on the west side. In a 1398 history there is mention of "una historia octo fenestrarum" (a historia of eight windows). Think for a moment of a medieval cathedral with rows of stained glass windows all telling "stories" from the Bible.
By the 15th century, the English word "story" had acquired from the Anglo-Latin ‘historia’ the sense of 'each of a number of tiers or rows of columns, windows, etc., placed horizontally above each other'. Various parish records from the 16th century tell of payments made to workmen for jobs like "making a foot of glass in the upper story of the middle aisle" or "trimming four stories of old iron."
‘Story’ also appears in the word ‘clerestory,’ first recorded in 1412. The clerestory is the upper part of the wall of the nave of a large church that rises above adjacent rooftops and has a row of windows that admit daylight to the center of the building. "Clear" is related to the French ‘clai’ and means light.
Although the Romance languages use derivatives of Latin ‘historia’ to mean history or story, the development of the sense to 'something that tells a story' and then to 'the location of something that tells a story' is peculiar to Anglo-Latin and therefore to English. Why? Who? Another fascinating little etymological mystery.
Ken G - November 20, 2002
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)