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The Definition of History: a Broad Understanding Examination

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What exactly is History? The formal, and unquestionably most generic, definition from Merriam-Webster states that history is “the study of past events.” Although this definition may be the more popular and well known explanation, it’s definitely not the best. To properly define “history” we need to go a little more in-depth because with this word, a multitude of different interpretations may apply.

For obvious reasons, the term itself encompasses a countless number of sub-topics, mainly due to the various directions the subject could be directed. These sub-topics are used by students, researchers, etc. to focus more specifically on a section of history because just focusing on history as whole would cover way too much ground and end up becoming way too complex. If we break these sub-topics down, they could include: Political History (timeline of government, political leaders, etc.), Diplomatic History (relationships between nations), Social History (population change, customs, etc.), Cultural History (language, arts, literature, etc.), and Intellectual History (ideology and epistemology) just to name a few.

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Although there’s a very wide-range of potential historical topics one could study, they all revolve around the same idea; analyzing past actions and recognizing what failed vs. what succeeded. With these findings, people can use the information to either prevent future disasters or continue applying strategies, procedures, tactics etc. that worked well. This basically just means, in a general sense, history is the development and transformation of human culture through the ages.

A tricky concept with this term is classifying what actually falls under the category of it; there’s a fine line between past and present. Technically a current event can’t be considered history but finding this transition point is a present-day dispute, with no definite answer. Take 9/11 for instance, it took place over ten years ago and is no longer considered a current affair, but is it considered history yet?

Going along with this, the Impact the event has on society makes some facts more important than others. The event, or fact, becomes history after it happens, however, if it’s not widely known then it will be forgotten. For example, the Martin Luther King Jr shooting will forever be a milestone in the history of our country but events on a much smaller scale might not make the cut.

The boundaries of the term “history” vary from person to person. The specifics of the term are very unclear but the general idea stays the same; “History is a story about the past that is both true and significant” (Kimball 1).


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