Mighty Red Pen

November 5, 2008

Hysterical about historical

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 8:35 pm
Tags: , , ,

A little post-election footnote: I’ve been hearing chatter in which Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States is characterized as historical, rather than historic. Anyone else?

Grammarphobia observes, “If something has a place in history, it’s historic. If something has to do with the subject of history, it’s historical,” but also mentions, “Despite the traditional distinction between “historic” and “historical,” the two words are often used interchangeably these days. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language now accepts ‘historical’ as a secondary meaning of ‘historic.'”

Grammar Girl offers, “’Historic’ is an adjective that means something important or influential in history.” and “’Historical,’ on the other hand, is an adjective that refers to anything from the past, important or not.” (She also discusses whether to use a historic or an historic, but that’s another story.)

Upon going direct to some of the usage guides, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English reveals, “Historic means generally ‘important in history,’ as in It was a [an] historic occasion of great significance; historical means ‘about history, relating to history,’ as in Historical novels are my favorite reading, and ‘in chronological order,’ as in Historical linguistics traces languages over time. But historical too is occasionally used to mean ‘important in history,’ so sometimes you will find both a [an] historical occasion and a [an] historic occasion. Best advice: try to maintain the distinction between historic and historical.”

The American Heritage Book of English Usage opines, “Historic and historical have different usages though their senses overlap. Historic refers to what is important in history. . . . It is also used of what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history: a historic house. Historical refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not: a minor historical character. Historical also refers to anything concerned with history or the study of the past: a historical novel, historical discoveries. While these distinctions are useful, don’t be surprised if you see these words used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times.”

So historic and historical, interchangeable or not? Slight overlap okay or under no circumstances whatsoever?



  1. Thanks, MRP, for confirming that I’m not the only one driven crazy by these sorts of things. I think “historical” used to refer to something like “historical novels” works just fine; there needs to be a distinction between it and a novel that marks a landmark.

    I guess if you had a Battle of Gettysburg recreation, it would make sense to call it a “historical event”.

    As an aside, is MRP participating in the NaNoWriMo?

    Comment by tk. — November 5, 2008 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  2. The reason we have two words is so that we can have clarity in what we say. I see no value whatsoever in permitting these words to merge. It isn’t a change that serves any function other than surrendering to intellectual laziness.

    Comment by David — November 6, 2008 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  3. Actually, they’ve been used interchangeably for 300 years. Over the course of this time, they have diverged somewhat, as words do. So it is inaccurate to say that they are merging. In fact they are diverging. And: “Most of the usage writers pretend that the differentiation is more absolute than it actually is.” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage)

    Comment by John — November 7, 2008 @ 9:01 am | Reply

  4. Well, then, John, I endorse the differentiation on the grounds that it is useful. I’m not a banner carrier for the status quo. I’m a champion of usefulness.

    Comment by David — November 7, 2008 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  5. This has been grinding my gears as well. I think my blood pressure goes up when I read “an historical event.” Where do these editors get their degrees from anyway?

    Comment by JakeTom — November 12, 2008 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

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