Word Choice: Historical vs. Historic
  • 2-minute read
  • 24th February 2017

Word Choice: Historical vs. Historic

Even native English speakers get “historical” and “historic” mixed up, as many assume they mean the same thing. There is, however, a difference.

And when it comes to academic writing, accuracy is everything. Make sure you use the terms “historical” and “historic” correctly in your work!

Historical (Related to History)

The word “historical” is a general term meaning “related to history.” It can therefore be used when referring to history or past events:

Historical records show that Chicago’s population grew quickly between 1850 and 1900.

It can also be used when referring to something that is based in the past:

Works of historical fiction are based in the past, but they don’t report true events.

Just in case you thought Long John Silver was an actual pirate.
Just in case you thought Long John Silver was an actual pirate.

But in all cases, “historical” refers to history or the past in general.

Historic (Of Historical Importance)

The word “historic” has a more specific meaning, since it refers to something that has particular importance in history. This can be either something notable from the past:

Nixon’s resignation was a historic moment in U.S. politics.

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Not a crook, eh?
Not a crook, eh?

Or it can be something from more recent times, or even from the present day, that seems noteworthy in comparison with past events:

The Chicago Cubs’ historic 2016 World Series victory will be remembered by fans forever.

The key thing to remember is that “historic” is used when something stands out from history.

Historical or Historic?

Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s crucial to distinguish between them in academic writing for the sake of clarity.

This can be difficult, since something can be both “historical” and “historic.” For instance, the Declaration of Independence is a “historical” artifact (i.e., an object from history). But it’s also a “historic” document (i.e., a document of historical importance).

A historic historical moment.
A historic historical moment.

One trick is to keep in mind that “historic” and “specific” both end in “-ic,” and that “historic” is more specific than “historical.” Remember:

Historical = Related to or from the past

Historic = Of historical importance

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