In the last International Women's Day I saw some footage showing a poster with the phrase "women making herstory", as opposed to "history". The phrase was playing with the fact that the word "history" can be decomposed as "his+story", suggesting a male tone. I wonder whether the origin of the word does includes this gendered tone. According to wiktionary, "history" comes from the Ancient Greek "ἱστορία", which is a female noun (is there a relation between noun of word and cultural gender of the word?). Now, ἱστορία comes from another Greek word, "ῐ̔́στωρ", which, in turns comes from PIE. "ῐ̔́στωρ" is a male noun, perhaps because, since it means judge, culturally judges were men (so notice the change from male to female in history)

Now, I know nothing of Greek, let alone of linguistics, so I'm not sure how to interpret the above to answer my question. It seems, the answer is "no, there is no male tone in the word history". In fact, as said, the word itself is feminine in both Latin and Greek. Any ideas?

PS: related but unhelpful post here.

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    Some say heritage balances out history
    – Nayuki
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 1:49
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    Several comments deleted. If anyone wants to argue that "his story" is a nonsense theory of "history", do so in an answer, and explain your reasoning. The current answers already explain a great deal; make sure you read them before commenting or answering. I will also have to point out that non-serious wordplay can be used to point out real and serious issues, much like using a joke can make a serious message more memorable.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 8:05
  • Unlike “herstory,” one feminist pun I heard decades ago that is etymologically justified was a professor calling her seminar an ovular. The eoot semin- in seminar and seminary does in fact come from the same root as semen. It means “seed,” and a seminarium was a plant nursery before it became a metaphor for teaching the next generation of scholars. She didn’t think it was offensive or sexist; she was just making a joke.
    – Davislor
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 23:00
  • @Davislor Was the downvoting necessary? Or just didn't like the question?
    – luchonacho
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 16:11
  • @luchonacho i didn’t downvote. No idea who did. Here, have an upvote to make up for it.
    – Davislor
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 20:56

5 Answers 5


"Herstory" is completely unrelated to the etymology of "history"

As others have mentioned, there is no etymological connection between the first part of "history" and the English masculine pronoun "his". Nor does there need to be for "herstory" to make sense as a coinage in English. People frequently form new words in un-etymological ways: e.g., by separating the end of alcoholic and using it as a new suffix to form words like workaholic. I won't discuss herstory further, since you seem to already understand that it's irrelevant outside of the context of English (and other answers have been posted that make that point). Instead, I'll assume the reference to "herstory" was just included as an interest-grabbing intro to the real question.

The grammatically feminine noun ἱστορία ("historia")

The gender of ἱστορία is predictable from the morphological structure of the word: it ends in the abstract-noun-forming suffix -ία. Nouns ending in this suffix are grammatically feminine. Furthermore, the grammatical gender associated with the suffix -ία is predictable from its phonological form: words with this ending decline as first-declension nouns, and in Ancient Greek, first-declension nouns are grammatically masculine if and only if the nominative singular form ends in ς, and grammatically feminine otherwise (I don't know whether any exceptions to that rule exist, but certainly not many). In modern linguistic terms, the gender assignment of ἱστορία would be considered formal (based on the form of the word), not semantic (not based on the word's meaning). Formal gender assignment is common as part of the grammatical gender systems of various Indo-European languages. Greek abstract nouns ending in -ία can refer to concepts associated with men: for example, διλοχία was apparently a word used in military contexts for "a body of thirty-two men". They can also refer to concepts that are not clearly associated with either men or women specifically.

I have the impression that in Ancient Greek (as well as in various modern Indo-European languages with grammatical gender), grammatically feminine abstract nouns are more likely than nouns of another grammatical gender to be portrayed as female beings when the abstract concept is personified (e.g. in statues or allegorical stories), but I don't know the details.

In terms of the historical reasons for the gender assignment patterns of Ancient Greek nouns, we only have speculation, not definite explanations, because the gender system had already developed by the time of the earliest Greek texts that we have found. One well-known hypothesis is that the a that characteristically appears at the end of neuter plural nouns, feminine gender abstract nouns, and feminine animate nouns in Greek (and Latin) comes from a Proto-Indo-European suffix *(e)h₂ that was originally used to form collective nouns.

The noun ἵστωρ ("histor") can be masculine or feminine

The noun ἵστωρ seems to have been used as early as Homeric Greek, although the exact meaning is apparently debated or sometimes unclear. There also seems to be some uncertainty about the presence or absence of a "rough breathing" at the start, and about the etymology of the first part. Two things that do seem clear are that

  • the first part is a root, not a prefix, and it's not related to the English word "his"

  • the ending is the agent noun suffix -τωρ

I thought that nouns ending in the suffix -τωρ in Ancient Greek were masculine as a rule, but I was mistaken: apparently some are common-gender nouns (nouns with a single single set of forms for both genders, which are masculine or feminine depending on their meaning). As George Menoutis says, ἵστωρ seems to exist both as a masculine and as a feminine noun: this is indicated in a table in Thomas Dwight Goodell's School Grammar of Attic Greek (1902) (§405).

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    Excellent answer indeed – but the uncertainty about the etymology of the root of ἵστωρ, I think, is not warranted. Beekes mentions an attempt by Floyd to derive it from ἵζω (PIE *sed-), but apart from that, isn’t it rather universally accepted that it’s from PIE *u̯ei̯d-, despite the not altogether regular aspiraton of initial *w- and the unexpected zero grade? I’ve never seen any other serious candidates, at least. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 18:06
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I recorded this possibility on meta. I had been meaning to do so.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 20:43

While I'm sure a better-research answer might be able to give you more insight, perhaps a simple response will be a good place to start.

As you found, "history" comes from Greek ἱστορία (historia) via Latin historia. A "ἱστορία" generically means an "inquiry," and that is the sense that Herodotus intends in the famous opening lines of his Histories:

Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε...

Godley's translation:

This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus...


  • Does English "history" come from "his story"? No. "Story" comes from the same Greek word, but the "hi" is completely unrelated to the masculine pronoun.
  • Does "historia" have a female connotation? No. Except in certain obvious cases, grammatical gender has nothing to do with male and female "in the real world." It's as silly (and wrong) to think that "virtus" or "ἀρετή" (virtue/excellence) are somehow "female-associated" or that "μαστός" (breast) is somehow "male-associated."
  • Are there problems with sexism in history? Yes. But the word's etymology is not one of them.
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    Interestingly enough, the Germanic root that originally meant what "story" now means in English developed into the modern English word "spell". Christian preachers moving into Old English-speaking areas called their teachings "gospel", meaning literally "good story" or "good news" (translating the Greek "εὐαγγέλιον"). Obviously this root is related to the German word Spiel, so we can see how these words change in meaning over time. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 11:53
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    @Robert In French, Jesus' message is taught as the "bonne nouvelle" (good news".... so it's all super interesting how it's a literal translation from gospel.
    – Patrice
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 12:07
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    @Patrice rather, both the English and the French expressions are likely separate literal translations from the Greek, but essentially yes. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 12:09
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    You may want to add a reference to the origin of the coinage "herstory": It's the moniker for a line of (feminist) historical thought that criticizes the way history used to be (and often still is) taught and researched, namely as succession of biographies of "great men". Instead, "herstory" as research program wants to explore the mostly invisible role of women in history. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 13:01
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    @luchnacho I was actually addressing the contrary observation that you brought up, i.e. that "historia" is grammatically feminine.
    – brianpck
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 18:01

'Herstory' is not much more than a nonce-word. It's the sort of thing that used to be quoted by feminists in order to demonstrate how wrongfully the world, even the English language, had been arranged to ensure that men would rule it. As @brianpck suggests, it's quite wrong to look for any other etymological explanation.

Over the years, other words have been suggested with similar intent. You can see the sort of thing in the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Manchester should become 'Personchester', which was in its turn corrected by some to 'Perchildchester' or 'Perkidchester'. Sadly enough, it all went to trivialise what was, in fact, a serious call for reform in an important aspect of British society, one that is still being addressed.

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    Your first paragraph is not true, I'm afraid. Feminists certainly have had criticised language structures, but only in regards to gender assumptions, such as the use of "he/him/his" as a generic pronoun, and male figures as examples. These were and are a genuine issue, which is why more care is taken these days. "Herstory" certainly is a nonce word, but one invented to represent another very real issue: the omission of women's lives from historical records. Sadly it's too often misrepresented in the way you've just done, by people who haven't understood why it needed to be considered.
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 1:01
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    @Graham My first paragraph is fine. I've misrepresented nothing. Try reading my second paragraph again — especially its last sentence
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:30

As said already, history comes from the ancient greek ἱστορία. I am a native Greek, although my studies are not in literature, so I don't have as much info to provide as sumelic, for example.

However, there is a key point here. Notice the punctuation on the first letter: That is a δασεία (dasia). This punctutation implies an additional sound*. For these reasons, words with dasia are converted to English by adding the initial H-.

There you have it then - the "h" comes from dasia, and "is" comes from the word letters directly - no connection with "his" at all.

You also mention ῐ̔́στωρ to be male - this is not true. It is both male and female. Here is a link to its forms. (Edit: I am not sure if it is a noun or adjective at this point...but I am sure it is both male and female).

*: As mentioned in the comments, this sound is of "heavy breathing".

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    Thanks for the answer. I took the gender of the word from Wiktionary (I know nothing of Greek). So Wiktionary is wrong then? (could perfectly be). Unfortunately, I cannot read the link you provide.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 17:14
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    This is not quite accurate. The spiritus asper or rough breathing (as it’s traditionally called in English) does not indicate a lengthening of the vowel, but an actual [h] sound. This sound has been lost in Modern Greek (as indeed it was lost in Latin/Romance), but it was never a matter of vowel length. And the rough breathing is a letter in the word just as much as the others are: it’s a grapheme that represents a sound in the spoken form. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 17:55
  • This must be right Janus! I will research a bit more so I can present this as correctly as I can. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 18:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks. Good comments.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 19:01

The History of Herstory

Robin Morgan coined the neologism in 1970. She was well aware of the etymology of history. As she recalled in her book, The Word of a Woman (emphasis added)

[The essay] “Goodbye to All That” was my contribution to the first issue [Of Rat magazine upon its takeover by radical feminists in January 1970]. Beneath the byline, I identified myself as a member of WITCH—in this case, the flexible acronym stood for “Women Inspired to Commit Herstory.” (This was the debut of the word “herstory.” I intended it as a consciousness-raiser, not as an etymological claim.)

She also spelled out the word herstory, as part of the name W.I.T.C.H., on page 551 of her 1970 anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful.

In modern usage, the word has come to mean writing about history from a feminist perspective, rather than making it. (Wikipedia claims that “femistry” and “galgebra” are similar coinages, but in fact these appear to have been invented sarcastically by a right-wing pundit, Christina Hoff Sommers, in 2014, and I could find no examples of any feminists using them.)

Few if any influential feminists have ever said that history is a sexist word, although many anti-feminists appear to believe that they do. The 1988 edition of the Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, for example, uses the word “history” throughout and pauses to sigh at “the belabored form of ridicule that we must find alternatives for every word containing” a syllable such as man.

The Afro-futurist musician Sun Ra made the same pun in 1980 (“History is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet.”) also fully aware that this is not where the word comes from.

I have, however, personally been forced to sit through a college lecture by a woman who actually believed and taught the urban legend his+story. Despite her claim to diversity being that she was Latina, she also told the joke his+panic (and misattributed it to the Reagan administration, being unaware that the Nixon administration first added it to the 1970 Census more than a decade earlier) and also fell for per+son. (I was sorely tempted to ask if she was familiar with the Spanish word una persona.) So, a few ignoramuses like that do exist; in my life, I have met a total of one.

The Etymology of History

If we were to take the word absolutely literally according to its etymology, it would imply that “history” is written by an istor, or “wise man.”

With regard to the fact that historia is grammatically feminine, theories about the Indo-European three-gender system include one that the gender that became “feminine” originally developed from a suffix for mass nouns, or that it originally primarily denoted abstract nouns, or that it started as a way to distinguish which of two subjects in a sentence someone was referring to, and only later came to include most words for women. English developed natural gender in the early modern period.

The Etymology of His

Since no one has gone into this yet, his comes from a Saxon root is, cognate with German es, and meant either his or its until the 1600s. There was a brief period of time when hisis was to his as hers is to her, but this failed to catch on. Its was still new enough when the King James translation of the Bible was written that the translators did not consider it sufficiently formal, so they avoided both his and its for neuter possessives whenever possible, and used thereof instead. This is how they came up with, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

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    Welcome to the site and thank you for providing a background for the term! With the more etymologically oriented answers, this puts the whole matter very well in context.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:05
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Couldn't agree more. This is a great answer.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 11:37
  • She was aware, but I'm surprised many people took with pun literally, as they aren't aware.
    – Quidam
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 1:30

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