History words

History, like many disciplines, has its own distinctive forms and styles of writing. As well as learning to think about the past, history students must also learn to write history in effective and convincing ways. Students who are already strong writers will relish this challenge but others may find it confronting. This page contains several lists of ‘history words’, to provide you with useful tips and a head start in writing for history. You will encounter many of these words when reading history, while others are useful descriptive words you might like to use in your own writing. These lists are not comprehensive or exhaustive but may prove useful for inexperienced writers. If you are new to history or have difficulty finding the right words, save or print off these lists and keep them to hand. If you would like to suggest words for these lists, please make contact with your ideas.

Sections or groups in society
These words are used to indicate or describe particular groups or sections of society:

academia People who work in schools and universities, teaching or undertaking research
agrarian People involved in producing crops and livestock through farming
aristocracy People who possess noble titles and privileges, often with wealth and power
artisans People involved in the manufacture or repair of items, such as mechanics
bourgeoisie People who own capital, such as land, factories and raw materials
capitalist As for bourgeoisie (above), people who own capital and the means of production
clergy People ordained by the church to carry out its functions, such as priests, monks and nuns
commercial People involved in trade, such as importing and exporting, buying and selling
economic People, institutions and activities that produce society’s wants and needs
establishment The political, social and economic elites who wield power in a society
gender Refers to the rights, roles and conditions of men and women in a society
industrial The mass production of wants and needs, particularly on a large scale
intelligentsia People who develop ideas, theories and policies in a society
middle class The social classes who own some property and enjoy safe and stable standards of living
military A state’s defence forces, such as the army, navy and air force
monarchy The institution of hereditary royalty, led by a king, queen or emperor
nobility People who possess noble titles, either from birth, royal grant or venality
peasantry People who work the land, usually as tenant farmers and often in impoverished conditions
philosophes Intellectuals and writers who engage in critical study of society, beliefs and ideas
political The people, bodies and processes that govern and make decisions in a society
proletariat People who work for wages in a society, particularly in the industrial sector
provincial The areas of a nation outside major cities, such as lesser towns, rural areas or colonies
upper class The upper levels of a society, such as royalty, aristocracy and the very wealthy
urban The people, actions and conditions in large cities
village A small agricultural community, usually in a rural area
working class The lower levels of society, whose members must work to survive
Political systems
These words are used to indicate or describe specific political and/or economic systems:

absolutism Any political system where the ruler or government wields absolute power
anarchism A political system that seeks to abolish the state and create a communal society
autocracy A system where political power is concentrated in the hands of a single person
capitalism An economic system where most companies, land and other resources are privately owned
colonialism A system of claiming, settling, ruling and maintaining one or more colonies (see imperialism)
communism A political-economic system with no state, minimal class differences and economic equality
constitutional monarchy A political system with a monarch whose power is limited and shared with the people
democracy A political system where the government or parts of it are selected by the people
divine right A form of political authority where power is said to be ordained by God
fascism A political system marked by authoritarian rule, nationalism, state and military power
feudalism A medieval socio-political system with a hierarchy of kings, lords, knights and vassals
imperialism A system where a powerful state conquers territories (colonies) for its own gain
Marxism A system or world view based on material factors, inequalities of wealth and class struggle
mercantilism An economic system designed to increase national power by increasing wealth and trade
militarism A system where military needs are prioritised and the military exerts political influence
nationalism An ideology urging loyalty to one’s own country; to put your country first
popular sovereignty A form of political authority where power is derived from the consent of the people
socialism A system where the government rules in the interests of the workers or common people
syndicalism A form of socialism where the workers collectively control their factories or workplaces
theocracy A system where government and laws are determined by religious leaders and teachings
totalitarianism A political system where the power of the state often overrides the rights of individuals
welfare state A system that provides necessities of life to the homeless, unemployed, sick or elderly
Political concepts
These words are important political concepts you may encounter when studying societies and their leaders:

assembly A body of people, elected or appointed to form government or make decisions
autocracy A form of government where one person is responsible for decision making
constitution A document defining systems of government and the limits of government power
democracy A political system where government is formed by popular elections
divine right The idea that governments and autocrats derive their power and authority from God
elections The process of voting to select others, usually to form a representative government
executive The branch of government responsible for leadership and day to day decision making
government A system responsible for leadership, making decisions and making laws in a society
ideology A system of ideas and beliefs that shapes one’s views about politics and government
legislature An assembly that exists to pass new laws or review, amend or abolish existing laws
parliament An elected legislature from which an executive government is also formed
participation The involvement of ordinary people in selecting government and in political discourse
popular sovereignty The idea that governments derive their power and authority from the consent of the people
representation A political concept where some individuals act, speak or make decisions on behalf of others
sovereignty The supreme authority of a government, the basis for its power and autonomy
state ‘The state’ describes an organised society and the political system that governs it
Economic concepts
These words are important economic concepts you may encounter when studying societies and how they supply their wants and needs:

capital The resources needed to produce things, such as land, raw materials and equipment
commerce The business of buying and selling, particularly on a large scale
debt Money owed to another party, usually because it has been previously borrowed
deficit The shortfall that exists when spending is greater than income
exports Resources or goods sold and shipped to another country, which boosts national income
finance Describes the sections of an economy concerned with managing money, such as banking
imports Resources or goods bought and shipped in from another country, depleting national income
industry The production of raw materials and manufactured goods within an economy
inflation An increase in prices for goods and services, reducing the purchasing power of money
labour The people who provide work to enable production or delivery of services; the workers
laissez-faire French for “let it be”; an economy free of trade regulations, tariffs or costs
manufacturing The process of making or producing goods, particularly on a large scale
production The process of making things, particularly things that have additional value
profit Financial reward obtained from business or investment, where income exceeds costs
revenue Money received for normal activities, such as sales (business) or taxation (government)
taxation Money collected from individuals and groups by the government to fund the state
trade The buying or selling of goods, usually in exchange for money
Words for describing historical cause
These words can be used when writing about or describing historical causes or causal factors:

agitated aroused awakened brought about catalyst
developed deteriorated encouraged exacerbated fuelled
generated incited inflamed instigated kindled
led to long term motivated popularised propagandised
prompted promoted protested provoked radicalised
reformed rocked roused set off short term
solicited sparked spurred stimulated stirred up
transformed triggered urged whipped up worsened
Words for describing historical effect or consequence
These words can be used when writing about or describing the effects or consequences of a particular historical event:

boosted catastrophic consolidated crippled decimated
demoralised depleted disastrous disbanded disoriented
dispersed dissolved divided drained elevated
emboldened enriched exhausted fatigued hardened
heartened improved inspired mobilised prospered
punished restored sapped scattered separated
stimulated strained strengthened stretched unified
united unsettled uplifted upset wearied
Words for describing historical continuity
These words can be used when writing about historical continuity or resistance to change:

blocked calmed censored clamped down concealed
conservative contained curbed deterred dispersed
froze halted held back limited mollified
pacified oppressed overpowered prohibited quashed
quelled reactionary regressed repressed resisted
restored restrained restricted smothered stabilised
stemmed stunted subdued suppressed wound back
Words for describing historical significance
These words can be used to describe historical significance, or the relative importance of a person, period or event:

adverse calamitous catastrophic destabilising destructive
devastating dire disastrous essential expedient
far reaching far sighted fateful forerunner ground breaking
healing important innovative meaningful modernising
negative ominous opportune profound pivotal
positive revolutionary ruinous serious shaking
shattering significant spear heading timely trail blazing
transforming tumultuous unsettling uprooting vital
Words for evaluating historical sources
These words can be used when writing about, describing and critically evaluating historical sources, whether they are primary sources or historians:

balanced baseless biased convincing credible
deceptive dishonest distorted doubtful dubious
emotive exaggerated fallacious far fetched flawed
honest imbalanced impossible inflated limited
misleading one sided overwrought persuasive phoney
plausible propagandist realistic reasonable selective
sensationalist skewed sound spurious unrealistic
unreliable untenable useful valid vivid
History tasks and activities
These words are often presented to students as instructions for tasks or activities in history:

analyse Examine and discuss the important structure or parts of something
annotate Record written questions, comments or explanations on a document or visual source
annotated bibliography A list of books that contains a note about the content and usefulness of each book
argue Present a case, to express and explain a particular reason or theory
brainstorm Gather and record thoughts and ideas spontaneously, without sorting or evaluating them
cite Refer to an authority or trusted source, as evidence of your information or idea
compare Examine two or more propositions and identify and discuss similarities between them
concept map A visual chart or diagram, using shapes and lines to organise and connect topics or ideas
conclusion The last paragraph in sustained writing, it restates the contention and ’rounds off’ the text
contrast Examine two or more propositions and identify and discuss differences between them
critically analyse Analyse something and offer views and judgements about the merit or value of its parts
define Provide precise meanings and explanations about something
describe Provide a detailed and graphic account of something
discuss Provide a balanced commentary about something, mentioning arguments for and against
evaluate Analyse something and form final conclusions about its value, credibility or merit
explain Provide a clear, straightforward and detailed account of something
historiographical activity A task requiring discussion of historians and their interpretations of a particular topic
interpret Examine something to extract its meaning and express it in your own words
introduction The first paragraph in sustained writing, offering a contention and an outline of the text
issue A topic or question that is open to discussion, debate or dispute
justify Provide clear reasons, grounds and evidence for a particular argument or conclusion
outline Provide a basic overview of something, describing only its main features
paraphrase To describe someone else’s words, statement or meaning, in your own words
review Read or examine something and offer your own thoughts and judgements about it
signpost Use phrases and sentences outlining the direction or structure your writing will take
summarise Briefly describe the main points or attributes of something, without going into much detail

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Brian Doone, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “History words” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/history-words/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].