HISTORICAL/HISTORIC: What’s the difference?


Well, it took some digging, but it turns out that there is a segment of the wordsmith population that would agree that there is no difference between historical and historic.  Several resources make the point that historic is just a less common word meaning the same thing as historical.  In both cases, they say that the words mean “pertaining to a period or event in history.

However, in digging deeper, I found this commentary in the Oxford  Dictionary:

 On the use of an historic moment or an historical moment :… In general, historic means ‘notable in history, significant in history,’ as in a Supreme Court decision, a battlefield, or a great discovery. Historical means ‘relating to history or past events’: ( historical society ; historical documents ). To write historic instead of historical may imply a greater significance than is warranted: a historical lecture may simply tell about something that happened, whereas a historic lecture would in some way change the course of human events. It would be correct to say, Professor Suarez’s historical lecture on the Old Southwest was given at the historic mission church .”

That is to say, a historical event means that it it something that relates to past history in a generic way.   Revolutionary War novels, therefore, may be considered to be historical.  Their purpose is to reveal something about an era of American History through the telling of a story…which may, or may not, have anything to do with a specific event in history.  In fact, the events may be entirely fictional.

A historic event, however, is a specific, noted place, event, or person which actually occurred in history and is able to be researched for factual data.   The Battle of Saratoga, considered to be a turning point in the American Revolution, is a historic event.  It took place in a specific site which can be traced and even visited today.   Its circumstances are recorded in history.  Specific personalities were a part of the famous battle.  That is what distinguishes it from a historical novel.

The Oxford Dictionary, you will note, says that we may be making too much of the difference between the two words.  That comes from the issue of usage, in that people today confuse the two terms regularly.  I have to admit that before I started looking at the research data I would have thought historical to be the more significant of the two words.  But the Oxford definitions and commentary make more sense to me now.

Much of what takes place in the English language, especially American English, is a constantly unfolding story.   As I have noted before, the English language is an amalgamation of a variety of other languages.  In the use of words from other languages, as well as the accumulation of new words (especially given the technological age in which we live) the final chapter has not been written regarding what is proper and what isn’t.   Some would say that it will never be written.  One of the factors is that of usage.  When sufficient numbers of people have adopted variant definitions of meaning by the application of words that were once seen to be divergent in meaning, the new application becomes normalized.

This may be happening to the words historic and historical. But in the meantime, I’m happy to have discovered the formal information which helps to define them.

A topic for another posting at some time is the spoken or silent “h” at the beginning of both words.  It matters as to whether one  says “a” or “an” historic moment.   But that’s not for today’s post.


Photo Credit: VisitWaynesboro.net

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