Mind your language

An historic

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

Everybody’s saying it, even though the latest research declares that only 6 per cent of the population is given to the habit. I mean saying an historic.

Sir John Major, though a Knight of the Garter, is proud of his origins in Brixton and Worcester Park, but started the present vogue at Chatham House in February by saying in a speech that the referendum vote to leave the EU was ‘an historic mistake’. On 29 March, when Donald Tusk received Theresa May’s letter triggering, not Article 50 (which itself was the trigger), but the process of leaving, the Prime Minister said: ‘This is an historic moment from which there is no turning back.’

You wouldn’t have known that from Robert Peston’s tweet for the occasion, which reported that she had called it ‘a historic moment’. So did the Sun, which is strange, because it often refers to things like ‘an historic win at Ibrox’.


There are fewer and fewer words beginning with h before which an is used. Historic is the most popular, but others are habitual, hereditary, historian, historical, horrific and horrendous. Each has an unstressed first syllable. People who prefer to use a before these tend to aspirate the h more strongly, but those who employ an may still sound the h a little.

An hotel, formerly pronounced like a French word, does survive, but may sound a bit Morningside. Americans pronounce herb with no aspiration and therefore use an before it.

In the Authorised Version of the Bible, it is always an horse, as in Psalm 33: ‘An horse is a vain thing for safety.’ It’s odd that in the Psalms attached to the Book of Common Prayer, which are generally more archaic, being taken from Myles Coverdale’s translation of the 1530s, Psalm 33 talks of a horse. Coverdale could contemplate an horse, as in Psalm 147: ‘He hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse, nether delighteth he in any mans legs.’

I can’t find any earlier occurrence in English of an horse. (Curiously, as the plural of sheep is sheep, horse originally had the plural horse, now preserved only in ‘a troop of horse’.) But all this horse sense is chiefly of an historical interest.

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