Q: I often hear talking heads on TV refer to a current event as “historic” or “historical.” Shouldn’t these adjectives be used only when one is talking about an event in the past? Also, I’ve been told that “historical” should be reserved for momentous events. Isn’t that very subjective?
A: Traditionally, the two words have different meanings. If something has an important place in history, it’s historic. If something has to do with the subject of history or existed in the past, it’s historical. Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “There’s not much historical evidence that the Hartletops’ house is historic.”
Can either “historic” or “historical” be used to describe something that’s happening now? I would say no for “historical” and yes for “historic.” If you witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers or the Challenger disaster or the first moon walk, you could justifiably have said they were historic even as you were observing them in progress.
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.”