“Historic” vs. “historical”

QUESTION: “Hello Jordan. I enjoy your column. I hope you can clear something up for me. My husband and I were driving into Muncie over the weekend and saw a billboard inviting us to visit ‘Historical Cammack Station.’ I thought it sounded awkward. Should it be ‘historic’ or ‘historical?’ Are these words interchangeable as adjectives? We squabbled about it all the way to Ball State. Help here please.” (Liz Schneider, Carmel)

ANSWER: Thank you for writing in, Liz. Hopefully I can clear up your argument without causing any lingering marital strife.

If you were to look up the word “historic” in a dictionary, you’d see two entries. The first: “Having importance in or influence on history.” The second: “Historical.”

Helpful, isn’t it?

The situation with “historic” and “historical” is this: They mean the same thing … except when they don’t.

To quote our aforementioned dictionary: “‘Historic’ refers to what is important in history … also what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history. ‘Historical’ refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not … also anything concerned with history or the study of the past.”

Let’s put those definitions to use. Abraham Lincoln gave a historic speech at Gettysburg,  whereas my professor gave a historical lecture about the Civil War. December 7, 1941, was a historic day (“a date that will live in infamy”). John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” is a historical account of the first wartime detonation of an atomic bomb.

To boil it down, “historic” should be used for important or influential aspects of history. “Historical” should be used for everything else. The Battle of the Bulge was a historic battle. A rifle used at the battle, however, is a historical weapon.

At the risk of offending the good people of Muncie, I would venture to say that Cammack Station is correctly identified as a “historical” location. But, with a 90 percent on UrbanSpoon, it does sound like a good place to grab lunch – historic or otherwise.