Which Word Wednesday: Historic vs. Historical

By November 17, 2010 language No Comments

A recent editing job sent me on an etymological hunt for the difference between historic and historical. My search would serve two purposes: The first, for my client; the second, for Which Word Wednesday. C’est magnifique!

This quandary arose because I needed to know if Jesus would be considered a historic figure or a historical figure. Here’s the sentence:

Trusting in Jesus alone means much more than just believing that He existed like any other historical figure.

A quick look at the Oxford American Dictionary helped a bit:

historic :: adjective
famous or important in history, or potentially so;

historical :: adjective
of or concerning history; concerning past events

USAGE In general, historic means ‘notable in history, significant in history,’ as in a Supreme Court decision, a battlefield, or a great discovery. Historical means ‘relating to history or past events’ (historical society; historical documents).

The definitions are a near match, providing little direction on which word to use. The Usage notes are more helpful though. If you make history, you are historic. If you are connected to history, you are historical.

Mark Davidson, in his Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, admits that these adjectives have been used interchangeably for a couple of centuries, but in recent times, a distinction has been made by precise writers. He gives this example:

A novel that makes history, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is historic. A novel about history is historical.1

With all this newfound knowledge, what’s the correct word for the context of my editing dilemma? Is Jesus historic or historical?

Well, Jesus has definitely made history (per OAD and Davidson)—He has split history in half and has permeated the latter portion.

But Jesus is also connected to history (per OAD)—His coming was and is and always will be the most marked event in history.

[polldaddy poll=4103210]

So what’s my WWW (and editing) verdict? I went with historic, because Jesus is famous or important in history more so than just connected to history.

What’s your verdict? Is Jesus historic or historical? Cast your vote and share your opinion in the comments.

And if my editing question stirred your wondering in regard to Jesus, check out The Story.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 296.

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