Historic and historical: the simplest explanation

This is a pair of similar English words that even native speakers find confusing. Have you ever heard someone say historic and historical are the same? Yes? So have I. Actually, they used to be synonyms (used in place of each other), but that changed a long time ago, so if you are still confused about them, here is the solution.

These words are both similar and different, but should never be used interchangeably. I’m sure you will understand them perfectly soon.

Historic and historical are both adjectives that talk about the past and being connected with history, so these are the similarities. However, they are different in meaning.

Historic

Historic means ‘important or famous in history’. It talks about a past event, period, structure, entity, etc. that is likely to be remembered more than others because of its importance or significance. Thus, your country’s independent day is a historic day, the day you graduate from college, university or won an award is also more important than the day you ate only breakfast because you could not afford lunch and dinner(which is no news).

Examples:

  1. It was the first two-storey building in Nigeria, quite a historic structure they won’t forget.
  2. The historic reunion was organised by his classmates.
  3. He stood up and gave a historic speech that changed the course of history.

Historical

Historical, however, means ‘connected to history, the study of history or past events’. This definition does not reflect importance, it simply denotes that something is in the past. Your grandfather’s cap is a historical fabric which you would most likely throw away because that’s what it is—a fabric.

Examples:

  1. The statutes of the historical figures stood in front of the embassy.
  2. These are historical replicas to teach my students the history of our people.
  3. The historical tunnels were destroyed by the contractors during the construction.

Relatively, it is possible for any of the above examples under each category to mean the other, e.g. your grandfather’s cap might be historic, it might be an important family symbol that should not be destroyed.

Finally, remember William Safire’s words whenever you get confused: ‘Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.’

Or mine: ‘-ic means ‘important cases’.

Note: historic and historical take a, not an. We produce the /h/ sound when we pronounce them, they are not like heir, honour, hour that take an. However, ‘an historicalis used several times in the Oxford Dictionary Corpus because words with -h were pronounced without the sound in the 18th and 19th Century. Some support this principle, others don’t, and that’s still unresolved (as usual in English). Despite that, a is what most speakers will naturally use in present-day English.

Also read: Why ‘a hospital’ but ‘an hour’

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