Why Are Floors Called Stories?

You’ve probably heard a building referred to as a “10 story building” (or whatever number happens to be relevant) before. It’s just one of those English things that we don’t think about, because the number of floors a building has being the number of stories it has is just how people talk. But it’s not like having a bunch of floors means a building tells a lot of stories by default—lots of super tall buildings are just drab offices where nothing happens. So why are floors called stories?

You’re spelling it wrong. Sorta.

You know how British people spell random words differently from Americans? You know, like “color” and “colour?” Anyway, the word “story” is one of those words in British English, but only in the context of floors. In the context of a narrative, the word is spelled “story” in both British and American English. The plural of “storey” is “storeys,” by the way.

Further Reading: Why Do Americans and Brits Spell Words Differently?

     Depending on where you are, stories and floors might not always line up numerically. It’s not uncommon to see the floor on the ground referred to as the ground floor. The floor above that then becomes the first floor, making the ground floor effectively “floor zero.” But sometimes the ground floor is the same as the first floor, which has probably given multiple people plus-or-minus-one issues when finding a friend’s apartment or something. 

If we look at the history of the word “story,” it probably started kicking around as early as 1200, traced back to the Latin historia, which is just “history,” and it means what you think it means. The first time “story” was used to refer to “some kind of true narrative that happened in the past” was sometime in the late 14th century. It was also around this time that the word referred to a fictional narrative (mostly for entertainment). Nowadays we kind of separate the two definitions between “story” and “history,” which started around the 1500s. 

Stories and buildings

The word also has referred to the floors of buildings since the 1400s, derived still from the Latin historia. It’s theorized that “story” became synonymous with building floors because painted windows were common adornments in the Middle Ages—windows that often also told stories. 

Calling back to a couple paragraphs ago, remember how British English basically split “story” into two different words for two different definitions? It has been proposed that the word “story/storey” may have origins in the Old French estoree, which refers to buildings. This alternative origin is commonly dismissed as it fails to explain the context in which the word was used synonymously with “history.” 

See if you know your American buildings with lots of stories here.