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Historical events don't have to be historic

Many would agree that all historic events are historical. But there's some dispute over whether all historical events are historic.

This week's topic comes from a listener named Cyndi who says, "It really 'gets my goat' to hear people use the redundant 'historical' when 'historic' will suffice."

We hadn't given this much thought before Cyndi brought it up, but we had an intuition that there is an accepted distinction between these two words. We assumed that "historical" events are those that simply happened in the past, while "historic" events are remembered and talked about for years to come.

As it turns out, that's in line with many usage guides.

For instance, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage from the 1920s says that "historical" is the "ordinary" word, while "historic" means "memorable" or assured of a place in history. The AP Stylebook makes a similar case. 

However, Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that these two variants have overlapped for most of their history, so you'll find these words used interchangeably quite often.

Interestingly, "historic" and "historical" actually do have very parallel histories. They both show up in the 1500s as a way to say "belonging to history." By the mid to late 1700s, both could refer to something that was of particular importance. 

According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, these two adjectives do tend to distribute along the distinctive lines laid out in style guides. For example, a "historic agreement" is one that history will remember, while a "historical novel" is a novel that simply takes place in the past. 

Do you make a distinction between "historic" and "historical" or do you use them synonymously? 


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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