Tall Tales

We’d sit here and make up great tall tales. – Bobby Briggs

An exaggerated anecdote, or even an outright lie, can be called a tall tale. Where does this phrase come from?

It’s American English, dating from the late 19th century. Some have considered whether the phrase might refer to fabled American giant Paul Bunyan, but the origin is a lot more straightforward. Tall in this sense refers to the exaggerated nature of the story: we make it seem bigger, or more important than it is, like a fish we caught that was this big! Obviously we don’t use tall in exactly this sense in other contexts, but you can see the same basic meaning at work. And it’s also important to note that tall tale has a good rhythm to it, with the minimal vowel shift between the two words, and that’s a big part of its success.

Tale can be a slightly tricky word, easy to misspell, because it’s a homophone for the word tail: i.e. it sounds identical, but is different in terms of meaning and spelling. So if you’re not sure how to spell it, you might be safer using story.

Which is itself an interesting word. Like chicken and kitchen, story is an annoying word for speakers of Romance languages, which all use the same word to mean both story and history. It’s very easy to therefore use the wrong word in English, especially for Spanish speakers who often find it hard to pronounce words beginning with S, and place a vowel sound before the S to match the sounds of Spanish. They’re even more likely to use history instead of story.

Of course you can see that in English we used to use the two interchangeably, as is evident in the title pages of some books from the 17th and 18th century, which often featured the phrase being the history of… And I think it’s pretty logical that the two could be used in similar ways. Both refer to the recounting of related events, usually in chronological order. The only difference is that history’s always true.

As is the way of words though, I’ve noticed that story has taken on a new meaning, thanks to social media. And it’s one that I don’t really understand, to be honest. It all started, I believe, with Instagram. I signed up relatively recently, having never really understood the difference between it and just sharing photos on Facebook, apart from the filters (I still don’t really see the difference, but I do like that the default setting is public, so you don’t know who might see your pictures). After signing up, I noticed these little circles at the top called stories. I tapped on the one on the left, and was treated to a very short video I couldn’t do anything with. The next one was the same. I shrugged and went back to exploring the app, content that I’d figure out why they’re called stories eventually.

Except I still haven’t, really. I first thought that because they were videos, you could create something with a clear beginning, middle, and end, compared to a static photograph. But then I discovered that a), a story doesn’t have to be a video, and b), you can share videos normally on Instagram anyway. So I did some research (I googled Instagram story), and discovered that the most distinctive element of these stories is their temporary nature. Which doesn’t really make sense to me. Sure, all stories have to end at some point (except for that one 80s film I saw as a child), but isn’t the point of a good story that we can tell it again, share it with others? They’re finite, but the best stories live on forever.

It all seems a little redundant to have these separate little stories on Instagram (and now Facebook) anyway. Surely one of the main points of social media is to create and share stories with our friends through messages, pictures, and videos. Or histories, depending on how honest you are online. So even though I’ve nothing against these stories, I don’t really get why we need them, or why they’re called stories. Perhaps you can enlighten me.

And no tall tales please.

11 thoughts on “Tall Tales

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