Terminology for Talking About History

The following words and terms may frequently appear when studying, reading about, or discussing history. We briefly explain what they mean and give you examples to learn how to use them. Learning this subject specific terminology is a great way to improve your performance in exams such as IELTS, GRE, SAT, LSAT, Civil Services, and Banking.

Artefact (US spelling - artifact)

This is one of the most basic terms when studying History. An ‘artefact’ is an ornament, tool, weapon, or other object made by a human that survives from a particular period in our history. It is therefore distinct from a natural object.


  • The recently discovered cave contained a treasure-trove of prehistoric artefacts, such as a bone flute and a stone spear tip.

  • Artefacts are commonly studied in the field of archaeology, and help people in the modern day to understand how our ancestors lived and what was important to them.

  • You should get an expert to check out that carved stone head you dug up. It could be a priceless artefact!


An ‘archivist’ is the person responsible for organizing, cataloguing, and providing access to historical records that are of long-term use or value. These records, kept in an archive, include letters, newspapers, audio and visual recordings, government documents, and digital files.


  • I wrote a letter of thanks to the archivist who helped me source a lot of the original material I needed for my thesis.

  • Sandra was a meticulous archivist. She spent weeks sifting through records to see which were worth the cost of storage and preservation.

  • The archivist at the college denied my application to access the hundreds of personal letters written by the former Prime Minister. I was hoping to use them for my biographical book.


An ‘era’ is a period in history that has a particular quality, feature, or character which is easy to define. It typically spans many years and has a specific or at least rough date of origin and completion. It is similar in meaning to an ‘age’ or ‘epoch’.


  • The book was set in the Victorian era, and dealt with the class struggles that were a feature of the period.

  • Moscow still has many buildings that are symbols of the Soviet era.

  • When the famous athlete retired from the sport, it really was the end of an era.


Put in the most basic terms, ‘historiography’ can be defined as the history of history. It gives us a better overall view of history by allowing us to see what biases may have shaped the recording of something, and better separate fact from myth.


  • As part of my study of the historiography of the French Revolution, I’m looking at how and why its history was written, by who and when, and whether different periods brought different perspectives, viewpoints, or reinterpretations.

  • The historiography shows that academic attitudes to that historical figure changed after World War II.

  • The newly released files from the archive will likely lead to an historiographical upheaval of the subject.

(Collective/cultural) memory

The ‘collective/cultural memory’ refers to the shared memories or knowledge of a group of people, passed down through time from one generation to the next. It is greatly associated with identity and cultural understanding. In many ways it can be described as the stories we tell ourselves to understand who we are and where we came from. The man difference between ‘collective’ and ‘cultural’ memories are that ‘cultural memories’ are those we celebrate and commemorate as part of our culture.


  • I’m writing my thesis on how mythologies affect collective memory and shape personal identity.

  • The event may have been 50 years in the past, but its power remains as it is still in the collective memory of the nation.

  • Oral history contributes to our cultural memory, but it is not always accurate and can emphasize emotion over facts.

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