Preservation Grammar: Historic v. Historical

The grammar topic for today: When it is correct to use “historic” or “historical”?

How often do you come across “historical preservation” as opposed to “historic preservation?” I see this quite often, whether casually or in presentations. If you consider the laws and the basis for the field, the proper term is “historic” not “historical”. For all other purposes, what’s the difference?I found the best explanation I’ve seen so far via Grammar Girl.

You can read Grammar Girl’s response or listen to the podcast about Historic v. Historical here. In brief, historic is something significant to our past whereas historical is something that is old and not necessarily important. If you think back to the Old House v. Historic House discussion, you’ll recall that historic means significant. Significant means that a building, structure, object, district or site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Old is simply old and not important or significant.

Now, how to remember this? From Grammar Girl:

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.

Why does this matter? Should you correct people who say historical preservation as opposed to historic preservation? (You should if it’s an appropriate occasion only.) Think of it this way: historical preservation leans toward the stereotype of “saving everything” as opposed to preserving, documenting, incorporating the significant (i.e. historic) elements of the past.

What do you think?

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34 thoughts on “Preservation Grammar: Historic v. Historical

  1. Pingback: PreservationNation » Preservation Round-Up: “Vinyl Windows Are Maintenance Free” Edition

  2. With all due respect, I think the whole semantics thing is a bit too much. I don´t think the vast majority of society cares one way or the other about these in-house debates, and I have a feeling we´re needlessly complicating matters with such language. Besides, isn´t one term simply a derivative of the other, its root meaning shouldn´t change.

    If memory serves, a previous article here (via link) eschewed the term ¨historic preservation¨ because it often ended with the suffix “ist¨, and was thus found to be unfavourable. Instead, we were to use the term “historic conservation¨, even though it too would have ended with “ist” (go figure). In the end, I´m unmoved by much of this, it seems a bit contrived. But then, what do I know, I´m just a keyboard preservationist.

    • Mark, I agree with you in the fact that we often needlessly complicate language and waste time/money/resources on silly matters. However, I have to disagree that historic v. historical is not simply semantics, just as old v. historic or old v. significant is not simply semantics. Instead, it is a matter of using the English language properly in addition to the matter of using preservation terminology properly.

      I’m not sure which article link you are referring to – nothing showed up in the post.

      A discussion that you might be interested in is the one about historic preservation or heritage conservation. It’s ongoing with the National Trust and other organizations right now, and something I’d like to comment on soon.

  3. Interesting post, and it reminds me of the same debate over using “a” or “an” before the term historic preservation. I’ve learned not to let semantics in the conversation, as well as misspellings or poor grammar in a blog post, bias the message I’m hearing/reading, and instead judging the message on the value of its content.

    • Yes, it is similar to “an historic” or “a historic” – another grammar topic! I think semantics are useful to discuss sometimes, but not if it’s to detract from a separate conversation. However, if you enjoying words and your field, then semantics can be lots of fun. There is certainly no harm, and I think it’s healthy, to question the exact language that you are using in writing and speaking. A well thought out piece or statement can make a good impact.

      Regarding grammatical errors or blog typos, I do my best not to judge the content based on them, especially because I know that my blog is certainly not error free.

      • Your grammatical/spelling skills seem pretty solid when it comes to your blog posts, but there are some blogs I’ve read so rife with errors that I just wonder about the writer’s intelligence… I’ve never really paid much attention to this, but using the word “historical” for the Society for Historical Archaeology seems as natural to me as using the word “historic” for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

  4. Its funny, when I see an old building that´s in ruins, or one that needs attention, I have a very natural, visceral reaction to it. I want to save it. Its emotional, not heady or intellectual. The parsing of words, sometimes to manipulate an agenda or further the cause, creates something of a disconnect for me. Will I make more hay by calling myself a conservationist ?

    • Keep the discussions coming. If we are talking about parsing words to manipulate an agenda, I’d say that’s a bit of a pessimistic view. Words are powerful and the fine minutia of writing and speaking is important. If someone is manipulating words to fill paragraphs with the showiest words – something that is unnecessarily four syllables for example – then that’s a waste and not good writing. Clear and concise is best and most effective.

      Yes, call yourself a conservationist. I call myself a preservationist. Let’s discuss.

      • “If we are talking about parsing words to manipulate an agenda, I’d say that’s a bit of a pessimistic view”.

        Pessimistic ? Every person, every org´n, has an agenda. There´s no need to attach negative connotations to such a thing unless that agenda is somehow repugnant or questionable. As for manipulating that agenda, isn´t that exactly what we´re doing ? When we deliberately choose words to get a desired effect, or to avoid unsavoury perceptions, as the article clearly notes, we are manipulating things. Call it for what it is. So I wouldn´t say that´s pessimistic, but I would say its a bit silly and transparent.

        To be honest, there´s a part of me that doesn´t want to be labeled as anything, necessarily. But here we are, debating the merits of preservation(ist) vs. conservation(ist). The article I spoke of (Time Tells blog, Oct. 30th) wades into this very matter, and declares (via a quote) that we´ve won the battle with changing society´s values. It also states that we now need to change the jargon, because, inter alia, the word preservation smacks of regulation and red tape.

        But I have a problem with this notion and some of the assertions being forwarded in this article. First of all, I wouldn´t say the battle of values has been completely won – City Halls all over North America are still battlegrounds re: preservation issues. But even if the battle has been won, didn´t that victory happen when the word ¨preservation¨ was being employed ?

        See, I don´t think rebranding, or re-owning words, really works. Because its not about the precise word we use, its about the intent behind it. Do you really think lawmakers, business people, land developers or Joe Schmoe care about the precise language ? They couldn´t give a rat´s behind. Surely, changing values in preservation have come about over the last number of decades because of financial, aesthetic and many other considerations.

        • Mark I think we are verging into an alternate discussion and these reply boxes are getting so narrow! But anyway…

          Of course every organization has an agenda, I agree. However, if we are going to talk connotation, then manipulating words has a negative connotation. The best part of the English language is how we can craft words and perfect meanings. And there are proper ways to use these words, such as the case of historic or historical.

          I completely agree that rebranding or reowning words does not work. I am not in favor of changing the name of the historic preservation field. Why change something that we’ve worked so hard to gain public approval? It’s a waste of time. I think it’s better to continue the good work and good publicity of our current vocabulary (historic preservation). Don’t we have enough to do without worrying about what the entire population thinks? I don’t think the battle will ever be won, because then there wouldn’t be a need for preservationists. Everyone would be one. The field is an uphill battle, I’ve always thought. So let’s keep it preservation and continue the good work. I’m glad to hear someone else is in agreement with that. And I’m intrigued — aren’t you Canadian, where heritage conservation is the USA’s historic preservation? (Pardon me if I’m mistaken.)

          However, keeping our existing vocabulary in mind, I still say there is a proper use for historic and a proper use for historical. Perhaps this is because I work in the regulatory world of preservation, where precise terminology matters.

  5. Interesting to see what those involved in historic preservation think about these semantic issues. As a historical archaeologist I realize that word choice can be important. In my field we use historical over historic for the opposite reason. As archaeologists we are concerned not solely with the “important” historical events and significant figures of the past, but in all people who have shaped our history. We use the term historical to show that we are interested in telling the stories of the people that history has forgotten or left out.

    • Becky, I’m an archaeologist as well and stumbled upon this article through a number of Facebook reposts. It’s fascinating seeing the opposite semantic argument being made. Not immediately knowing the context of this website from the link I clicked, I had this sudden flash of irritation that someone would write an article so completely wrong and backwards. :D To each their own…proper grammar.

      • Katy, I’m interested to know – do you think historic & historical are one in the same? Or that it doesn’t matter in this field? Or perhaps should not? If you find this post to be not correct, why not? All discussions welcome.

    • Becky, Thanks for the perspective of an archaeologist. There are many differences between the fields, however intertwined they may be. Preservationists use “historic” and “significant” based on regulations set forth in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Section 106 (36 CFR 800) interprets how the NHPA will be followed – historic and archaeological resources will be identified in the process of federal undertakings. (You may be aware of this; I’m just including it for the benefit of other readers.)

      As part of the NHPA of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places (read more here: http://preservationinpink.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/historic-preservation-basics-no-5/) was established in order to aid agencies in determining which resources need to be reviewed for adverse effects resulting from state and federal projects. The National Register is used by more than just the federal government, however, and its criteria for eligibility is the standard in the historic preservation field for determining historic significance of a resource.

      Distinguishing between something that is historic and something that is old allows preservationists to understand what has played an important role in shaping American history. After all, we cannot save everything and not everything is of significance to the public. Something that is old as opposed to historic does not mean that it’s not important to someone. It just means that it is not eligible for listing in the National Register.

      Information about the significance of archaeological sites & the National Register can be found here: http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/arch/pt4.htm.

      • Hi Kaitlin,

        I, too, am an historical archaeologist, but I work in NHPA compliance and 106 is my bread and butter. (I am guessing that the same may be true for Becky, since more and more of us are finding employment outside of academia.)

        I think Becky’s point was that, as a sub-field of anthropology, archaeology is concerned with the people and cultures who made, used, or manipulated the sites, structures, and landscapes in which we are interested for their age and potential significance. Archaeologists will record *all* of these that we can find, and we think that doing so is exceptionally important – after all, once we have destroyed that tiny lithic scatter or that bottle dump (whether through excavation or development), it is gone forever. Even this small amount of data, taken in sum (and examined for variations), is incredibly important in understanding broad patterns of past human action.

        Historical archaeologists, in particular, are keen to research topics (and people) that may have been ignored or misrepresented in both past and present accounts. So, (and I think this was Becky’s point) the use of the term “historical” as it is defined above is interesting specifically because it seems to incorprate that desire we have to be inclusive and to seek out what may have seemed (or seems) unimportant to others.

        But we do also utilize the distinction of “historic” to denote whether an archaeological site or other resource is significant in terms of Section 106 and eligibility for the NRHP (i.e., historic property), and we are unlikely to expend the time and resources to conduct extensive investigations at a site that would not qualify as a historic property.

        As a side note, I work in a state that has a “Division of Historical Resources” and that has always irked me. I know that the folks who work there do not get to decide what the division is named, and perhaps it is most appropriate since they review information on all resources; since their main concern is the significant ones, though, that seems to lend support to my preference that they be called the “Division of Historic Resources” instead.

        • Hi Monique,

          Thanks for the clarifications. Perhaps I read the comment too fast or not thoroughly enough. Your explanations help immensely, as I am not an archaeologist. I particularly like your statement: “archaeology is concerned with the people and cultures who made, used, or manipulated the sites, structures, and landscapes in which we are interested for their age and potential significance. Archaeologists will record *all* of these that we can find, and we think that doing so is exceptionally important – “.

          And yes, Division of Historical Resources irks me too. It’s interesting how the states often have such different names for their SHPO office.

  6. Interesting discussion!

    I had the same reaction about “historical” not sounding right when I was researching grad programs in HP and came across this: http://www.desu.edu/historical-preservation-ma . Until then, I had never seen a program called “Historical Preservation,” and obviously, from what I see, the use of “historic” is almost universal in the field.

    That being said, I am not sure how I feel about the association assigned here to “historical,” ie, equating it with stuff that is simply “old” but not significant enough to be “historic.” Sure, that explanation is logical in some ways. But my adverse reaction to the distinction is probably caused by a couple things, the least of which is not the arbitrary line between what is historic and what is “just” old. Just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I guess I’m saying one person’s historical is another person’s historic. That cliche is terrible, I know, but I think you know what I mean. Who is the arbiter of significance or importance? Of course, we will be academic about it, and find various intellectual or theoretical justifications for and against “worthiness,” and issue standards for significance, etc, but in the end, I think the gray area is just too gray.

    One example perspective from my side: When I lived in New England, I saw many old houses — vernacular or “folk” Victorians, let’s say — that were probably considered unremarkable by most of the locals (“historical,” at best!), but if the house was transported magically to a small town in Ohio, where I live now, the same house would probably be perceived as something more “historic,” worthy of rallying around if it was threatened.

    Also, with the historic preservation profession increasingly touting “green” or sustainability justifications to support its efforts, doesn’t that blur the lines even further? If “historic” preservation is in the business of conserving/recycling old buildings for environmental or sustainability reasons, then does it matter if one house’s architecture is plain or a bit more ornate? The historic preservationist in this case would, on the green premise, wish to save both the historic and the “historical.”

    Just my two cents. But still, I’ll be the first to admit that “historical” preservation just doesn’t sound right — linguistics alone! Great blog, I’ll definitely bookmark!

    • Hi Michael, thanks for joining in the discussion. You ask “who is the arbiter of significance or importance?” That is always a good question in the preservation field. The laws & regulations dictate that the arbiters are those who are qualified to be architectural historians (i.e. preservationists) according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. That typically means a master’s degree or years of relevant experience. Applying the National Register criterion for eligibility is a skill that takes a while to master (if anyone can master such a thing).

      I think any house will be viewed differently – loved or not – when placed in an alternate setting. Of course, community feeling goes a long way.

      Interestingly enough – the program you linked to uses Historical Preservation in the page title but begins the text with historic preservation.

      One more thing about historic v. historical or historic v. old: there are three levels of significance to the National Register. They are: local, state and national. In that sense, a building significant to the town may be simply “old” to the nation. These standards were created in order to protect historic resources from federal action. I suppose for consistency many other organizations have adopted similar standards in determining what is historic or not.

  7. “The ordinary adjective of history is historical; historic means memorable, or assured of a place in history, now in common use as an epithet for buildings worthy of preservation for their beauty or interest; historical should not be substituted for it in that sense.” H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1985), 247.

  8. Its interesting to read the comments here, and to see the confusion associated with historic/historical. In England they´ve avoided all of this by simply using the word redundant instead of historical. Maybe those Brits are on to something….

  9. I’ll leave one more comment from another historical archaeologist – perhaps the class of professionals I have the “historic/historical” conversation with are prehistoric archaeologists, who often insist that I am a “historic” archaeologist (I believe this is because “prehistorical” is not a word and to them, it sounds weird to say “historical”). I often illustrate the difference by saying that I, not well-known and still living, am a historical archaeologist, whereas Sir Mortimer Wheeler or Heinrich Schliemann are historic archaeologists!

  10. I think this is an important discussion because our profession needs to be taken more seriously. We need our field (at least in the USA) to be called one thing – Historic Preservation.

    I generally take dictionaries and the English language very seriously (to the point that I annoy people), but to me “historic” means something old and valuable, and “historical” is RELATED to a something historic, like a historical society or historical research.

    I’m glad Monique brought up what her SHPO (NH?) is called. I often write Division of Historic Resources when referring to the NHSHPO, and have to go back and correct myself. :-) And again, in order to be taken seriously and avoid confusion, I think all SHPO’s should be called the “State” Historic Preservation Office and no other name, like NJ does. It is the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, that’s it, no other name.

    • Paula, I am so glad to hear this from a fellow preservationist. I agree that our field should be called one thing – Historic Preservation. I’ve always wondered why some state SHPO offices are historical societies or other names. Talk about confusing for people outside of our field – not to mention those of us in it!

      I think the discussion of changing the name of our field is futile and a waste of resources. I have two degrees in “Historic Preservation” and I am proud to call myself a “Historic Preservationist.”

  11. Hey Kaitlin,

    These are good thoughts and I appreciate your distinction. I think it is much more than an issue of semantics. I wanted to offer some perspective from the field of biblical studies and theology, as this same issue plagued us. The German scholars in the 19th/20th centuries who pioneered the “quest for the historical Jesus.” used these two different words as well, “geschichtlich” (historical) and “historisch” (historic). It got a little dicey when English scholars got involved. They obviously can convey vastly different theological ideas. It took some time for the English scholars to get on the same page. Interestingly, they would use the same distinction geschichtlich referring to events and things of facts in Jesus’ life and historisch referring to the iconic figure and what he means for people today.

    I am not a linguist, but I think Its easy to downplay this as semantics because in English our two words have the same stem (and look very similar) but, in German at least they are very different words and mean very different things.

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