Adjectives ending with -ic and -ical: historic/al, hysteric/al, electric/al, economic/al ... ...

Lexicographe

Member
France / français
I wonder if there is a difference of use and meaning between adjectives ending with -ic and -ical that share the same root.

For instance:
- historic and historical
- hysteric and hysterical

When I looked in my dictionary, it gave the same example for both historic and historical: a site of historic interest / a place of historical interest.

Is it just a question of personal preferences, a BE/AE difference, does one sounds more "scientific" or more formal?

EDIT: I intended to write about two men, saying that they were both historic(al) leaders of a movement. Which one is the most suitable?
 
  • liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    "historic" and "historical" seems something of an exception to me.
    I wouldn't use "hysteric", nor "scientifical"
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    I think that "historic" and "historical" mean different things -

    A historic occasion - one of great import for us all.
    A historical occasion - one (probably also of great import or we wouldn't remember it) which occurred in the past.

    "Hysterical" is the only form of that adjective I've come across, although I suspect "hysteric" is potentially a noun.
     

    Lexicographe

    Member
    France / français
    Thank you very much, especially for the links. :)

    So, I think that when I'm talking about xx being the first leader, the founder of a political party, I can say: xx is the historic leader of the party. Is this right?
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    No, neither "historic" nor "historical" means "the first".

    A historic leader - one who was so good they'll be remembered forever.
    A historical leader - hmmm, not so likely to say this one, but certainly one in the past, but not necessarily the first.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    A historic leader - one who was so good they'll be remembered forever.
    I don't think a historic leader is necessarily a good one, in fact the bad ones are much more likely to be remembered in the history books. Sad though it may seem, a leader who reigned peacefully without doing much for many years may not be considered a historic leader, whereas one who reigned for a few years but slaughtered half of his people or invaded all the surrounding countries would certainly be one.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    From this thread:
    historic & historical

    OED definitions:
    historic 2. esp. Forming an important part or item of history; noted or celebrated in history; having an interest or importance due to connexion with historical events. (The prevailing current sense.)

    historical 1. a. Of or pertaining to history; of the nature or character of history, constituting history; following or in accordance with history.
    2. a. Relating to or concerned with history or historical events.
    ... and various other definitions of a similar nature.
    There's a nice quotation in the New Fowler's:

    Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic
    (William Safire)
    http://www.wordreference.com/definition/historic
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    I don't think a historic leader is necessarily a good one, in fact the bad ones are much more likely to be remembered in the history books. Sad though it may seem, a leader who reigned peacefully without doing much for many years may not be considered a historic leader, whereas one who reigned for a few years but slaughtered half of his people or invaded all the surrounding countries would certainly be one.
    I'm not sure I agree - I pondered this before I wrote my post. Would you describe Hitler as a historic leader? I don't think I would, but Churchill I certainly would. Was the murdering of the students at Tiananmen square a historic event? Again I'd say not, but the first man on the moon certainly was. I think historic events are monumental, and these are usually good (or at least lead to some sort of advancement).
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    Well, yes it does in my opinion - that was exactly the point I was making. As I say, to my ears, "Hitler was a historic leader" sounds very strange, as does "The Tiananmen square massacre was a historic event". I know they are historically significant, but nevertheless describing them as historic sounds - to me - strange.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    To me, "historic" indicates a noted point in history, or even a turning point in history. I would say the Tiananmin Square massacre was definitely a historic event.

    I wouldn't say it was a historic occasion, though; "occasion", to me, is a positive historic event. A historic event can be either positive or negative, in my opinion.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    I'm not sure I agree - I pondered this before I wrote my post. Would you describe Hitler as a historic leader? I don't think I would, but Churchill I certainly would. Was the murdering of the students at Tiananmen square a historic event? Again I'd say not, but the first man on the moon certainly was. I think historic events are monumental, and these are usually good (or at least lead to some sort of advancement).
    In the definition given by panjandrum, historic basically means historically significant. It would be difficult to claim that Hitler was not at least as historically significant as Churchill, probably he was more so. Other leaders of the 20th century are not so well remembered - even the good ones.
    The same goes for Tiananmen Square; China is a big country, and there must have been some positive events in the same period, but these are not considered to be as historically significant. So, yes I would describe both Hitler and the Tiananmen Square massacre as historic.

    To look at it from another angle and try and match the events with your definition timpeac, such horrific events as WWII and Tiananmen Square can cause a sort of positive backlash, if you will. People often refer to the wonderful spirit of cooperation and unity among the British people during WWII, the countries of western Europe have not fought amongst themselves since then, and the UN was created shortly afterwards. The actions of the lone student in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square have become an inspiring symbol of defiant courage. I'm afraid I don't know enough about China to say whether the international outrage due to the events in Tiananmen Square has lead to a moderation of government policy there, but I hope that this is the case.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Returning to the original question:


    I wonder if there is a difference of use and meaning between adjectives ending with -ic and -ical that share the same root.

    Consider ELECTRIC/ELECTRICAL

    Both can mean the same thing, but "Electric" will mean, more often than not, "exciting, thrilling, or tense". It is much less likely to mean "Electrical" or "using electricity".
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Packard rightly reminds us of the original question, which reminder may bring us out of the historic debate about the historic/al distinction.

    Fowler includes a sizable section on this topic. A few key points.
    ... often the choice is immaterial, ... differentiation based on nuance of meaning is useful, ... sometimes the difference is profound.
    Politic & political - significantly different;
    Economic & economical - somewhat less distinct.
    Comic & comical - even closer.

    Then there are pairs that have gone their separate ways.
    The -ic form has become almost exclusively a noun while -ical remains as an adjective:
    cynic, hysteric, fanatic, critic.

    Where both continue as adjectives, there is nothing to suggest a pattern for those pairs that have different -ic/ical meanings.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    A good number of these pairs change the part of speech too.

    A comic (noun or adjective)
    comical (adjective)

    Others seem to be pretty much equivalents:

    diabolic/diabolical
    economic/economical
    polemic/polemical
    angelic/angelical
    hysteric/hysterical
    numeric/numerical
     

    edval89

    Senior Member
    United States/English
    I don't know about the other examples, but "economic" and "economical" are certainly different. Economical means "giving good value or service in relation to the amount of money, time, or effort spent" whereas "economic" just means "relating to economy"

    Also, I have never heard of angelical being used ever.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    In the definition given by panjandrum, historic basically means historically significant. It would be difficult to claim that Hitler was not at least as historically significant as Churchill, probably he was more so. Other leaders of the 20th century are not so well remembered - even the good ones.
    The same goes for Tiananmen Square; China is a big country, and there must have been some positive events in the same period, but these are not considered to be as historically significant. So, yes I would describe both Hitler and the Tiananmen Square massacre as historic.
    I follow the logic that you might think that something that is historically significant should be described as "historic" - I'm just commenting on my own impression of the usage and whereas "a historic victory" sounds fine "a historic defeat" sounds strange (although perhaps it is just me!). For instance if you heard of "a historic meeting of 3 world leaders", would you assume the meeting was historic because something good came out of it - they decided to fight world poverty for example - or because they were forming an axis of evil to take over the world? For me it would have to be the former. I think it significant that the definition given by Panjandrum talks of noted or celebrated. Every example I think of to myself confirms this to me - "the historic meeting of the two scientists whose collaboration would lead to the invention of penicillin" - fine - "the historic murder of Archduke Ferdinand which would lead to the First World War" - very strange.
    To look at it from another angle and try and match the events with your definition timpeac, such horrific events as WWII and Tiananmen Square can cause a sort of positive backlash, if you will. People often refer to the wonderful spirit of cooperation and unity among the British people during WWII, the countries of western Europe have not fought amongst themselves since then, and the UN was created shortly afterwards. The actions of the lone student in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square have become an inspiring symbol of defiant courage. I'm afraid I don't know enough about China to say whether the international outrage due to the events in Tiananmen Square has lead to a moderation of government policy there, but I hope that this is the case.
    Now, this I do agree with. I think that if an event, no matter how terrible, is viewed as ultimately positive then in that context the event would be historic. In my example above, a defeat of the army of country xxx would be historic if viewed from the point of country yyy who beat them and expelled them from their land. As I say, despite the etymology between "historically significant" and "historic", bad things, people or events described as historic strike my ears as odd.

    I do also admit that I seem to be a bit of a lone voice in feeling this, other than that "celebrated" nuance, so perhaps it is just me...
     

    Haylette

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Hello,

    Could someone clarify for me, the difference between the word "classic" and "classical".

    I've also never known when to use the word "ironic" and when to use "iroical", so if somebody could just explain this for me it would be a big help.

    Thanks.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    When classical isn't used as a technical term, as in 'classical' music, it usually means of the Roman and Greek classical civilizations (as in classical literature or philosophy). Classic in moden BE, as I'm sure you know, Haylette, often means memorable or archetypical: classic cars, a situation of classic complexity.

    That might give people something to react to and throw brikbats at.
     

    Haylette

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Okay, don't say classical unless it's Roman or Greek. I can understand that.
    What's your take on the ironic vs ironical issue though?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I was hoping to dodge that, and I'm not sure that someone won't come in and make a good point about classic and classical. We might be better off with a new thread, don't you think, Haylette?

    I'm not sure that there's much difference between ironic and ironical, or between comic and comical.
     

    Haylette

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I did originally post a separate thread, but it was merged into this one.

    All the online dictionaries I've checked have the "-ic/-ical" adjectives down as meaning the same thing, so you might be right on that one.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Guilty of having executed the thread merge ... ...

    This thread addresses the general topic of -ic/-ical adjectives. Earlier posts suggest that there is no general rule to help explain the difference - if there is a difference (and there isn't always). It is in the hope of finding some kind of general solution that this thread has been nurtured.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    Here are some other uses of classical (besides Greek and Roman things):
    3 said of music and arts related to it: having an established, traditional and somewhat formal style and form. 4 said of procedures, etc: following the well-known traditional pattern • the classical method of making pancakes. 5 said of a shape, design, etc: simple; pure; without complicated decoration. 6 said of a language: being the older literary form.
    Classic means simply:
    adjective 1 judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality. 2 typical.
    According to the dictionaries ironic and ironical are exactly the same. Personally, I don't like ironical. I didn't even think it was a real word. If they're the same then then the "-al" is just excess baggage.
    The same seems to apply to angelic and angelical, although I'm even less convinced of angelical as I can't find it in Chambers or OED. Perhaps it's being confused with evangelical - curiously evangelic doesn't appear to exist.
    Here's an idea from Chambers regarding comic/comical:
    Both words have the meaning 'causing laughter', and they are largely interchangeable • Her long body would have looked comical as she ran back and forth. Only comic still has a direct association with comedy • He had a solo spot with a comic song.
    It seems to me that where there is no apparent difference in meaning between the two forms, the existence of one form (usually the -al form) is questionable.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It seems to me that where there is no apparent difference in meaning between the two forms, the existence of one form (usually the -al form) is questionable.
    I'm a bit puzzled by this, Liliput. What do you mean by the existence of one form is questionable? The fact that it's in the dictionary suggests that people use it. You can't be suggesting that some central authority says they mustn't.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    For example, some dictionaries list ironical along with ironic and others do not include ironical - therefore there is some doubt over its validity (perhaps existence wasn't the right word). Personally, on the occasions that I've heard ironical I've assumed it to be a mistake and that the speaker meant ironic but didn't know the "correct" word.
    I don't want to get into an argument about usage defining the language. What I intended to communicate is that where the meaning of the two forms is the same, one form is usually more widely accepted. Ironical and angelical may exist, in the sense that they are used, but they are less widely accepted than ironic and angelic
     

    river

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Funny how things change. Ironical is considered a needless variant today, but it was once the preferred form.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Some of the "ical's" are the "of or pertaining to's":

    Ethical (of or pertaining to ethics)
    Mystical (of or pertaining to mystics)???
    Lyrical (of or pertaining to lyrics)???
    Optical (of or pertaining to optics)
    Medical (does not follow this example)
    Critical (???)
    Classical (of or pertaining to classics)
    Heretical (of or pertaining to heretics--and their practices)
    Comical (???)
    Magical (of or pertaining to magic)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It's an interesting idea, but I'd take issue with some of these, if the suggestion is that this is the only meaning. You would yourself too, Packard, I suspect, to judge from the question marks. Lyrical poetry hasn't much to do with lyrics - or even, now, with lyres. And a magical sunset hasn't much formally to do with magic, has it? We've considered classical in some detail. A heretical view is one which implies a heresy - that doesn't mean it's either of or pertaining to heretics. Etc.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    It does not work as a "rule", but it works for "magical" even in your example.

    The sunset was so beautiful that it was as if by magic (of or pertaining to magic = magical).
     

    Xophmeister

    Member
    English (GB)
    Hello,

    A question that's interested me for some time are the group of adjectives in English that end with the "~ic" suffix. Particularly, a lot of these can be extended to "~ical" without any change in meaning: some sound better with, but most without... For example:
    Algebraic (ok) / Algebraical (a bit funny)
    Geometric (ok) / Geometrical (ok)
    Botanic (ok) / Botanical (ok)
    Ironic (ok) / Ironical (old fashioned?)
    Magic (ok, but used more as a noun) / Magical (ok)
    There are few that sound wrong without the ~al. For example: mathematical, physical, diabolical, political, etc. (Although you do occasionally hear "politic" used as an adjective; as in "the body politic".)

    These words all seem to be of Greek origin, but that doesn't explain why they can take two forms. Does anyone have any ideas? My only theory is that the ~ical form is a relic from the recent past: my only evidence for this being that my mum says, "ironical"; which sounds strange to me, who would just say, "ironic".

    Thanks :)
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    There's a discussion of -ic/-ical at The Mavens' Word of the Day and in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English by Kenneth G. Wilson.

    Additional information: A search of Google Books for

    ic ical Greek suffixes

    turns up a long discussion, "The origin of the suffixes -ic and ical," in the introduction to Variation and Change in the Lexicon, by Mark Kaunisto, which is available in the limited preview offered for that book.

    I see now that if you scroll down the preview page you will find information relating to the difference in usage between -ic and -ical. Interesting stuff.
     
    Last edited:

    Xovvo

    New Member
    English-American
    It seems that -ic forms a more direct adjective, while -ical is sort of an adjective from an adjective, often more abstract.
    Example: Historic tells us that the event was significant in history--was history in a sense--while historical tells us that the event is a part of history, just a general event, its measurement of importance dropped, focusing more on the fact that the event is a part of the progression of History.Historic emphasizes the importance of the event to history.

    We find this pattern amongst the other words like this: -ic generally referring more specifically, while -ical takes the concept to a more abstract level.
     

    Proximus2

    New Member
    English, Cantonese, Singlish
    How about ironic vs ironical?

    I prefer to use 'ironic'. But many people do use 'ironical'.
    Maybe it's just a preference?
     

    inib

    Senior Member
    British English
    I know this thread is very old, but I've just consulted it, having had a similar doubt. Another one I always find hard to explain is why we read a classic in literature, but listen to classical music. I know I've just used one as a noun and one as an adjective, but I've been going over it so much that I no longer know if I'd say I've read a classic book or a classical book. Help!
    EDIT: I've only just realised that there was a second page to this thread, and have now seen that classic vs classical has already been discussed. Nevertheless, I'd still appreciate it if you gave me your opinions on the underlined part at the end.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    I'd put it more as being "of the accepted quality to be considered a good example of..." (after all you could say "this is a classic example of a flop") but basically I agree. "A classical example of a flop" would be hard to understand - perhaps a flop written in the 18th century, or perhaps something written by Mozart's lesser-known brother Kevin.
     
    Last edited:

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    You often hear "this joke is a classic". This means it has been repeated often and (at one time) was considered funny. It might not be funny anymore, but it would not lose its "classic" designation.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    You do...but you can extend this to many examples. "His mistake was a classic", "her hair-do was a classic", "his fart was a classic" etc - some good, some bad, many ambiguous without context - it's the context that would tell you if it's of very high quality or not, the basic idea is a good example of its type. Consider a comment such as "I'm so bored with my school reading list - they only want us to read classics, nothing good!" The speaker there clearly doesn't consider the quality to be good, but is saying that the books are considered good examples of their type.
     

    Lucky_Luke_1000

    New Member
    German
    Hello everybody,

    I would like to raise a question with respect to adjectives that end in 'ic' and 'ical'. As you know, there are a number of ic-suffixed adjectives some of which have different meanings when turning them into ical-suffixed adjectives (I hope the terms "ic"- and "ical-suffxied" are grammatical, if not: sorry!).

    To give three examples:
    1. economic (referring to economy/economics) vs. economical (saving resources)
    2. historic (significant, striking, remarkable, "a historic moment", etc.) vs. historical (referring to things happened in the past)
    3. politic (diplomatic, prudent, wise) vs. political (civil, civic, referring to politics)

    As a side note, if you do not agree with my thoughts, feel free to take a stand and contradict me.

    What I would like to know, well...... I have read that adjectives ending in 'ic' have a close and direct connection with the meaning of the root they derive from. By contrast, adjectives which end in 'ical' have a less direct connection to their roots and thus, in general, show a broader range of possible meanings and readings. This may be the case with "magic' and 'magical, "electronic' and 'electronical' and quite a few other adjectives, but obviously, this rule does not hold for the above examples 2 and 3. I would argue that the adjectives 'historical' and 'political' have a semantically more direct connection with the meanings of their roots than the adjectives 'historic' and 'politic'.

    Does anybody know a valid rule that could be employed generally? Do the meanings of ic- and ical-adjectives always differ, or would you think there are adjectives with which the meanings do not change significantly when their suffixes are changed? In the first place, I think of morphological and semantic solutions, but I would be grateful for any other proposition as well (esp. intuitive ones).

    Thank you in advance. Have a nice weekend!

    Best regards

    Chris
     
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