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"Historic" Versus "Historical"

A memory trick will help you remember the difference.

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 18, 2012
Episode #133

Page 1 of 2

historic historical

Today’s topic is the difference between the words “historic” and “historical.”

A listener, Denise, wants to know if she should say, "We sell historic replicas" or "We sell historical replicas." Was an event "a historic occasion" or was it "a historical occasion"? These are good questions because it’s easy to get these two words confused. They sound alike and their meanings overlap, but the two words are used differently (1).

Now, Bonnie writes:

“Historic”

“Historic” is an adjective that means something important or influential in history. So Denise should say, “The treaty was a historic occasion.” It was an important occasion. It would be incorrect to say, “We sell historic replicas” unless they are replicas that are important to history. You’ve probably heard TV announcers refer to “historic treaties” or perhaps you’ve visited some “historic houses” or “historic battlefields.” All of these were important or famous things in history.

“Historical”

“Historical,” on the other hand, is an adjective that refers to anything from the past, important or not. Denise should say, “We sell historical replicas” because these replicas are from the past; they’re probably not so important. A “historical occasion” would be just some occasion in the past; it wasn’t necessarily an important occasion. “Historical documents” are just documents that record the past. You’ve probably read a “historical novel” or perhaps even a “historical romance,” which are books set in the past. There is nothing especially important about these books; if they were, they’d be “historic books.” The Gutenberg Bible would be a historic book, for example.

Memory Tricks

It’s common for people to mix these two words up. One style guide laments, “Examples of ‘historic’ used incorrectly for ‘historical’ could easily run for several pages” (2). William Safire said something that might help you remember the difference: “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic” (3). I’ve also created an odd memory trick to help you: You can remember the meanings of these two words by thinking that “ic” is “important,” and they both start with i, and “al” is “all in the past,” and those both start with a.

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