Not every event that is historical is historic as well

By: PHILIP OCHIENG

In one admirably descriptive news piece, the November 2 number of The Standard got it right.

Wrote a sports reporter: “They came in large numbers, donning their team colours, and painted the Nyayo National Stadium and its environments green for one historic occasion, Gor Mahia’s coronation day”.

But in the same edition, the same newspaper wrote that the same occasion had also been “historical”.

The question is ineluctable: Which of the two adjectives did Kenya’s self-styled “Bold Newspaper” have in mind — historic or historical?

Yet it is a question I should no longer be asking here.

Why not? Because I have asked it umpteen times in this column.

The problem for many users of English whose mother tongue it isn’t is that historic and historical do not mean the same thing.

To be quite sure, both have the same etymological root. But, in semantic import, the one is distinctly different from the other.

THE DIFFERENCE

Take historical. In fact, no event ever needs to be so described. Why not? Because to do so is to tautologise.

How? In the sense that all events take place in what Einsteinian physics calls “space-time continuum”.

Space-time is the only dramatic stage — the theatre of action — of all events that ever occur in Stephen Hawking’s universe.

That is why the mere fact that a broad smile once creased Jomo Kenyatta’s face was no less historical than the fact that Harry Truman once caused certain atomic warheads to raze Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the ground.

Both the smile and the bomb occurred in Albert Einstein’s space-time continuum and are thus equally historical.

But, of the two, only Truman’s can also be called historic. Why? Because a smile, even if it is Mzee Kenyatta’s, is not a history-making event.

Before Kenyatta, human beings had smiled uncountable times every day ever since making their first steps into the dramatic scene of history that Charles Darwin called evolution.

Every event whatsoever is thus historical because it happens in space-time.

But that does not necessarily make any event also historic (without the “al” ending).

HISTORICAL

An event is historic, not just because it took place in space-time, but, more than that, because it occurred for the first time in history.

Ever since America’s nuclear baron Robert Oppenheimer spearheaded the making of the atom bomb, many such bombs have been perfected.

Yet only Oppenheimer’s contraption can be described as historic.

His was history’s first such warhead that a concert of human hands, tongues and brains had ever contrived.

The difference between historic and historical is thus self-evident.

An event is historical merely because it happened in history — namely, in space-time — a fact it shares with everything else that has ever occurred in our universe since the hypothetical Big Bang, including Aden Duale’s birth (alas!)

On the other hand, an event is historic either because, in its category, it has happened for the first time in history or because — like America’s World War nuclear catapults on Japan — its socio-environmental consequences have been thoroughgoing.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION