History words

History, like many disciplines, has its own distinctive styles of writing. While learning to think about the past, history students must also learn to write history in a clear and convincing manner. Those 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 a head start in writing history. You will encounter many of these words when reading history while others are useful descriptive words you can 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

academiaPeople who work in schools and universities, teaching or undertaking research
agrarianPeople involved in producing crops and livestock through farming
aristocracyPeople who possess noble titles and privileges, often with wealth and power
artisansPeople involved in the manufacture or repair of items, such as mechanics
bourgeoisiePeople who own capital, such as land, factories and raw materials
capitalistAs for bourgeoisie (above), people who own capital and the means of production
clergyPeople ordained by the church to carry out its functions, such as priests, monks and nuns
commercialPeople involved in trade, such as importing and exporting, buying and selling
economicPeople, institutions and activities that produce society’s wants and needs
establishmentThe political, social and economic elites who wield power in a society
genderRefers to the rights, roles and conditions of men and women in a society
industrialThe mass production of wants and needs, particularly on a large scale
intelligentsiaPeople who develop ideas, theories and policies in a society
middle classThe social classes who own some property and enjoy safe and stable standards of living
militaryA state’s defence forces, such as the army, navy and air force
monarchyThe institution of hereditary royalty, led by a king, queen or emperor
nobilityPeople who possess noble titles, either from birth, royal grant or venality
peasantryPeople who work the land, usually as tenant farmers and often in impoverished conditions
philosophesIntellectuals and writers who engage in critical study of society, beliefs and ideas
politicalThe people, bodies and processes that govern and make decisions in a society
proletariatPeople who work for wages in a society, particularly in the industrial sector
provincialThe areas of a nation outside major cities, such as lesser towns, rural areas or colonies
upper classThe upper levels of a society, such as royalty, aristocracy and the very wealthy
urbanThe people, actions and conditions in large cities
villageA small agricultural community, usually in a rural area
working classThe lower levels of society, whose members must work to survive

Political systems

absolutismAny political system where the ruler or government wields absolute power
anarchismA political system that seeks to abolish the state and create a communal society
autocracyA system where political power is concentrated in the hands of a single person
capitalismAn economic system where most companies, land and other resources are privately owned
colonialismA system of claiming, settling, ruling and maintaining one or more colonies (see imperialism)
communismA political-economic system with no state, minimal class differences and economic equality
constitutional monarchyA political system with a monarch whose power is limited and shared with the people
democracyA political system where the government or parts of it are selected by the people
divine rightA form of political authority where power is said to be ordained by God
fascismA political system marked by authoritarian rule, nationalism, state and military power
feudalismA medieval socio-political system with a hierarchy of kings, lords, knights and vassals
imperialismA system where a powerful state conquers territories (colonies) for its own gain
MarxismA system or world view based on material factors, inequalities of wealth and class struggle
mercantilismAn economic system designed to increase national power by increasing wealth and trade
militarismA system where military needs are prioritised and the military exerts political influence
nationalismAn ideology urging loyalty to one’s own country; to put your country first
popular sovereigntyA form of political authority where power is derived from the consent of the people
socialismA system where the government rules in the interests of the workers or common people
syndicalismA form of socialism where the workers collectively control their factories or workplaces
theocracyA system where government and laws are determined by religious leaders and teachings
totalitarianismA political system where the power of the state often overrides the rights of individuals
welfare stateA system that provides necessities of life to the homeless, unemployed, sick or elderly

Political concepts

assemblyA body of people, elected or appointed to form government or make decisions
autocracyA form of government where one person is responsible for decision making
constitutionA document defining systems of government and the limits of government power
democracyA political system where government is formed by popular elections
divine rightThe idea that governments and autocrats derive their power and authority from God
electionsThe process of voting to select others, usually to form a representative government
executiveThe branch of government responsible for leadership and day to day decision making
governmentA system responsible for leadership, making decisions and making laws in a society
ideologyA system of ideas and beliefs that shapes one’s views about politics and government
legislatureAn assembly that exists to pass new laws or review, amend or abolish existing laws
parliamentAn elected legislature from which an executive government is also formed
participationThe involvement of ordinary people in selecting government and in political discourse
popular sovereigntyThe idea that governments derive their power and authority from the consent of the people
representationA political concept where some individuals act, speak or make decisions on behalf of others
sovereigntyThe 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

capitalThe resources needed to produce things, such as land, raw materials and equipment
commerceThe business of buying and selling, particularly on a large scale
debtMoney owed to another party, usually because it has been previously borrowed
deficitThe shortfall that exists when spending is greater than income
exportsResources or goods sold and shipped to another country, which boosts national income
financeDescribes the sections of an economy concerned with managing money, such as banking
importsResources or goods bought and shipped in from another country, depleting national income
industryThe production of raw materials and manufactured goods within an economy
inflationAn increase in prices for goods and services, reducing the purchasing power of money
labourThe people who provide work to enable production or delivery of services; the workers
laissez-faireFrench for “let it be”; an economy free of trade regulations, tariffs or costs
manufacturingThe process of making or producing goods, particularly on a large scale
productionThe process of making things, particularly things that have additional value
profitFinancial reward obtained from business or investment, where income exceeds costs
revenueMoney received for normal activities, such as sales (business) or taxation (government)
taxationMoney collected from individuals and groups by the government to fund the state
tradeThe buying or selling of goods, usually in exchange for money

Words for describing historical cause

agitatedarousedawakenedbrought aboutcatalyst
led tolong termmotivatedpopularisedpropagandised
reformedrockedrousedset offshort term
solicitedsparkedspurredstimulatedstirred up
transformedtriggeredurgedwhipped upworsened

Words for describing historical effect or consequence


Words for describing historical continuity

blockedcalmedcensoredclamped downconcealed
frozehaltedheld backlimitedmollified
stemmedstuntedsubduedsuppressedwound back

Words for describing historical significance

far reachingfar sightedfatefulforerunnerground breaking
shatteringsignificantspear headingtimelytrail blazing

Words for evaluating historical sources

emotiveexaggeratedfallaciousfar fetchedflawed
misleadingone sidedoverwroughtpersuasivephoney

Command words for history tasks and activities

analyseExamine and discuss the important structure or parts of something
annotateRecord written questions, comments or explanations on a document or visual source
annotated bibliographyA list of books that contains a note about the content and usefulness of each book
arguePresent a case, to express and explain a particular reason or theory
brainstormGather and record thoughts and ideas spontaneously, without sorting or evaluating them
citeRefer to an authority or trusted source, as evidence of your information or idea
compareExamine two or more propositions and identify and discuss similarities between them
concept mapA visual chart or diagram, using shapes and lines to organise and connect topics or ideas
conclusionThe last paragraph in sustained writing, it restates the contention and ’rounds off’ the text
contrastExamine two or more propositions and identify and discuss differences between them
critically analyseAnalyse something and offer views and judgements about the merit or value of its parts
defineProvide precise meanings and explanations about something
describeProvide a detailed and graphic account of something
discussProvide a balanced commentary about something, mentioning arguments for and against
evaluateAnalyse something and form final conclusions about its value, credibility or merit
explainProvide a clear, straightforward and detailed account of something
historiographical activityA task requiring discussion of historians and their interpretations of a particular topic
interpretExamine something to extract its meaning and express it in your own words
introductionThe first paragraph in sustained writing, offering a contention and an outline of the text
issueA topic or question that is open to discussion, debate or dispute
justifyProvide clear reasons, grounds and evidence for a particular argument or conclusion
outlineProvide a basic overview of something, describing only its main features
paraphraseTo describe someone else’s words, statement or meaning, in your own words
reviewRead or examine something and offer your own thoughts and judgements about it
signpostUse phrases and sentences outlining the direction or structure your writing will take
summariseBriefly 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, https://alphahistory.com/history-words/, 2018, accessed [date of last access].