English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Historic vs. historical: A history

Q: A headline on the CBC website: “23 historical black Canadians you should know.” Wouldn’t “historic” be more accurate?

A: We think that headline writer could justifiably have used either “historical” or “historic.”

The article on the CBCnews website referred to “23 black Canadians who made major contributions to Canada’s culture and legacy.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, “historical” is generally used to mean having to do with history or the past. And “historic” is generally used to mean important in history.

These black Canadians were all real people who lived in the past, so they can be called “historical” figures. They were also important in the past, so they were “historic” figures as well.

But even back in 2006, when we wrote that post, the two terms were often used interchangeably.

The then-current fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language accepted “historical” as a secondary meaning of “historic,” and the new fifth edition does too.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees. Both dictionaries say that either “historic” or “historical” can be used to mean famous or important in history. So the headline writer could have meant “historical” in this sense.

In fact, the difference between these words isn’t nearly as pronounced as some people think. Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say on the subject:

Historic and historical are simply variants. Over the course of two or three hundred years of use, they have tended to diverge somewhat.”

Evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary supports this view.

The first on the scene was “historical.” In the mid-16th century, the OED says, it meant “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history.”

The adjective “historic” showed up in writing a little later, in the late 16th century, when its meaning was much the same as “historical.”

The OED says it originally meant “relating to history; concerned with past events.” So the two words were more or less synonymous.

Then in the 18th century, both words took on an additional meaning—important or famous in history.

And ever since, according to OED citations, writers have used both “historic” and “historical” in two senses: relating to history and famous in history.

But, as the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide points out, preferences have emerged and the two words have “tended to diverge.” So how are these words used today?

Historical is the usual choice for the broad and general uses relating to history,” the usage guide says. “Historic is most commonly used for something famous or important in history.”

Merriam-Webster‘s conclusion: “We would suggest that you go along with the general trend.”

Although a case can be made for using the two words interchangeably, we use them the way M-W suggests.

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