June 9, 2011

Historic vs. historical

After the major blackout across the northeastern United States in 2003, which shut down New York City and areas from Ontario and Ohio to New Jersey, I remember the Chinese factories rushed to produce t-shirts that read, "I SURVIVED HISTORICAL NEW YORK BLACKOUT."  I wanted to get one of these, not because I lived through the blackout--I was 90 miles away in Philadelphia, just south of the blackout area--but because of its crazy corruption of English. 

The shirt really meant to say "the historic New York blackout."  "Historical" generally describes anything having the quality of history--the historical borders of the German Empire; historical population statistics.  Things that are historical have come and gone.  "Historic," however, refers to a special, even epoch-making quality: the historic election of Ronald Reagan or of Barack Obama.  See, for instance, the entry in Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (rev. ed. 1994). 

I'd call a classic car an "historic car," but not an "historical one."  You care about the car (if you care) because it's old and special.  New York State makes the error on its license plates.

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