Historic or historical?
The difference between ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ is more significant than you might imagine. These are not two different ways of saying the same thing; rather they each have their own meanings and usages. But how do you know when to use each one?
Let’s start by having a look at the dictionary definitions of the two words, and then we can talk about how and when to use historic or historical in the right context.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the two words thus:
Famous or important in history, or potentially so
Of or concerning history or past events
Fairly straightforward, no? Maybe. But let’s take a closer look at what those definitions mean when it comes to actually using those words in sentences or phrases.
When to use historic
From the definition above, we can see that ‘historic’ doesn’t necessarily relate to events from an earlier period in history. Instead, the intention of the use of ‘historic’ is to hammer home the significance of the event. In fact, we can use it to talk about events that happened yesterday, those that are currently underway, or even those that will be kicking off at some point in the future and are anticipated to have some significance.
Essentially, anything that can be said or expected to ‘go down in history’ – i.e. something momentous, groundbreaking or remarkable – can be labelled ‘historic’.
… we can use [historic] to talk about events that happened yesterday, those that are currently underway, or even those that will be kicking off at some point in the future and are anticipated to have some significance
Some historic happenings
The Brexit vote, for example, could be described as historic, in that it essentially changed the nature of the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe forever. Even if those in charge are (at the time of writing) still titting around with defining what the new relationship might look like, the vote, the decision to leave, was itself historic. It’s going to have an impact for years to come, and will no doubt be a subject that’s covered in history classrooms in 100 years’ time.
The miners’ strikes of the 1980s were historic. Donald Trump being voted President was historic (in one way or another, depending on who you ask). The renaming of the Marathon bar to Snickers was historic.
Whatever is momentous to you
Basically anything can be labelled ‘historic’ if it is considered a momentous occasion or event by whoever is making the statement. That’s why we can say it was a historic day when Comma Chameleon was launched. And why our copywriter can say her school javelin throw at the age of 15 was pretty historic. We’ll have to take her word on that one, but you hopefully get the idea.
When to use historical
Historical, on the other hand, is used when talking about events, people, places, things and artefacts from an earlier period in history. There’s a much narrower scope for use. The sticking point here is that there’s no strict definition of what constitutes an earlier period in history, and there is no hard and fast rule for when something becomes ‘historical’. There seems to be a general acceptance that at least one generation needs to have passed before an event can be labelled as ‘historical’ – so about 20 years, give or take.
Check out onthisday.com to see the sort of timescales we’re talking about when we talk about ‘historical events’ – they’re pretty mind-boggling.
The sticking point here is that there’s no strict definition of what constitutes an earlier period in history, and there is no hard and fast rule for when something becomes ‘historical’
That means you wouldn’t speak about a parenting win from yesterday as a historical triumph, no matter how much it might feel like one. Nor would you call an upcoming exam a historical shitshow. Of course, if your performance in that exam ruins your family’s financial fortunes for generations to come, they might talk about it in those terms, but you yourself can’t call it historical. Not yet.
Some historical figures and artefacts
Documents, architectural finds, people… these are all things that, when old (like, really old – generally dead actually, when talking about people) are described as historical. They are things, people and events from a long time ago that have had an impact on the world in some way or another. They are spoken about with reverence, taught about in schools, and kept in museums as examples of how things used to be done. They are things that paved the way. Neolithic stone tools are historical artefacts, because they speak of early man’s ingenuity. William Shakespeare is described as an important historical figure because of the impact his writing had on the English language.
They are things, people and events from a long time ago that have had an impact on the world in some way or another. They are spoken about with reverence, taught about in schools, and kept in museums as examples of how things used to be done.
Parenthetically, have you ever noticed that people of historical importance are generally referred to as ‘historical figures’, not ‘historical people’? Alas, we have no idea why that is, but it does rather lend the phrase more gravitas.
Historic and historical at the same time
The waters become a little more muddied when you’re talking about historical figures in conjunction with the thing they did that made them important. Shakespeare is an important ‘historical figure’, and a first edition of one of his works would be a ‘historical artefact’. Yet the act of publishing his first work can be described as ‘historic’.
An easy way to remember the distinction is to think about whether you want to say something is ‘from history’ or is ‘momentous’. If you can’t speak your phrase, replacing ‘historic’ or ‘historical’ with ‘momentous’ or ‘from history’ and have it still make sense, you might be trying to use the wrong one.
If you can’t speak your phrase, replacing ‘historic’ or ‘historical’ with ‘momentous’ or ‘from history’ and have it still make sense, you might be trying to use the wrong one
For example: ‘Shakespeare is a figure from history’ is a good swap for ‘historical figure’.
‘Shakespeare is a momentous figure,’ on the other hand, doesn’t work.
Likewise, saying, ‘The Brexit vote was momentous’ works as a substitute for ‘historic’. But saying ‘The Brexit vote was from history’ doesn’t.
Changing up the words like that might not work for every example – we get that. So if you do come up against any particularly tricky usages, please just ping us a message on Facebook and we’ll get right back to you to clear it up.
Send us your wordy conundrums
So that’s the historic/historical conundrum explained. It’s all in the meaning, and it’s all about the timeframes.
Have you got any other grammar or word-usage rules you want clearing up? We love to dig deep into the whys and wherefores of the English language, so let us know what you want us to untangle and we’ll get to work on it.
The Comma Chameleon team