Eagle-eyed Allan Cavanagh drew my attention yesterday to a peculiar turn of phrase. It concerns what the BBC described as “the first crown court criminal trial to be held without a jury in England and Wales for more than 350 years”. Rising to the occasion, a barrister for one of the accused said: “We are breaking history. This is the first time that a court has started a jury-less trial.”
Now, as Allan remarked on Twitter, breaking history is a strange turn of phrase. At least, it’s strange to him, and it’s strange to me too. One can make history or break with history; one can also rewrite history, bend history (see below), or go down in history; one can even be history (“The rest is history”; “If I see that deadbeat punk again, he’s history”). But can we break history?
It seems we can, but we don’t do it very often. A search on Google produced a few examples among the many false positives:
Election set to break history
This is an historic community, breaking history even today
Somehow while breaking history the series seemed anticlimactic
We wanted to get married [and] be the first ones in Dubuque to break history
Only few get opportunities to break history, but all have the capacity to bend history and Periyar is a man who has not only bent, but broken the history of Tamil Nadu
and several from sporting contexts:
Lady spikers look to break history this weekend
Garth Tander and Will Davison need to break history
We have done a lot to break history over the last year or so
While breaking history at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps said…
He also expressed some confidence over his team’s ability to break history
The Miami Hurricanes’ mission to “Break History and Make History” was accomplished in spectacular fashion with a 49-27 defeat of the Seminoles.
The sense is clear, and in most cases seems identical to making history. The last example is therefore especially interesting: is there a difference between breaking history and making history? At first I thought the Miami Hurricanes’ ‘mission’ — to “break history and make history” — might have been an official club slogan, but line 1 below [click image to enlarge] points to a more casual origin, subsequently picked up by news media:
In any case the expression does not seem nearly as common as making history. Yesterday was the first time I noticed it, and I will consider it a non-standard variant unless I hear otherwise. I found no evidence of history being broken in several online newspapers or in the Time corpus or British National Corpus, while in COCA I found just two examples, numbers 1 and 4 in the image above.
The context of the historic court case suggests that the barrister intended the idiom make history (or possibly break with history*). Given the historic nature of the trial, he may have blended making history with breaking news. Or maybe he meant precisely what he said, and is publicly championing this secondary form. My question, readers, is this: Does the expression seem strange to you, or have you heard it before?
* In which case he is breaking with the history of “breaking with history”.