The word history

History is a potentially confusing word, as students find out if they need to translate it into Latin or Greek.

English has many abstract words that are hard to pin down; and prose composition can be salutary when the student discovers how abstract expressions can become vague or confused, or even be used deliberately to euphemize or deceive.

Latin is very sparing with abstract terms, as to a lesser extent is Greek.

In English, history is commonly used in several different meanings:

  1. The study of past events, as a pursuit.
  2. The compilation of a record of them
  3. The presentation of them as a narrative
  4. The events themselves
  5. The past in general, as opposed to the present or future.

When President Trump said that history is written by dreamers, not doubters, he was using sense 4. When a journalist replied that no, it is written by historians, he was using senses 2 and 3.

On Sunday 10th July 2016, Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, gave a short speech after Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. His purpose was to give consolation and reassurance after a week of racial strife and shooting. In the course of it, he said, “Partly our history uplifts us, and partly our history afflicts us.” He was using the word history in sense 4 and perhaps sense 3 also.

Among past and present cultures, there are three that may be noted for their preoccupation with history in most or even all of these senses: Roman, Jewish and American. They have in common not only mechanisms for self-preservation but also professed ideals of order, action and justice.

Sense 1 is clear enough in Latin and Greek: historia.

But how can a student put the word into Latin or Greek in senses 2-5? Possibilities include rerum gestarum memoria, or res gestae, or praeterita; and τν ργων μνήμη, or τ συμβεβήκοτα, or τ πρίν.