Can we break history?

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?

[Pictured: a Neolithic stone axe hammer with which to 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”.

12 Responses to Can we break history?

  1. I don’t know about breaking history but a lot of politicos and tyrants certainly mangle it beyond recognition!

  2. Would a breaking story be breaking history? It sounds like arse to me! To break history suggests a very radical rupture that the more sensible “breaking with history” doesn’t. In the latter usage, would “breaking with tradition” or “custom” be more appropriate in a lot of cases anyway? Can you mend history? Or repair it? Can you nearly break it? Sprain it? Fracture it? Give it a nasty bruise? Leave it needing a solpadeine and a band-aid?

    Sorry, Stan, I got a bit carried away there…

  3. Stan says:

    You guys are very funny.

    Jams, that’s true. And some of history could be seen as a tussle between its manglers and its menders.

    Doubtful, far from getting carried away, you are only following the (il)logic of the phrase. If people tell us they’re breaking history, we may well ask what they mean.

  4. Sean Jeating says:

    After this breaking news I decided to give history a break.

  5. Stan says:

    Sean: Isn’t it funny that giving history a break and taking a break from history mean the same thing? It’s no wonder people try new expressions.

  6. Sean Jeating says:

    Quite, Stan. And then there is the joy of playing with words. In December, after our baking-sessions, I found myself ending two letters ‘mit marzipamandelnen* Grüßen’. In English I might have written something like ‘with marzipalmond greetings’. :)

    * made from Marzipan and Mandel (almond)

  7. Stan says:

    A delicious way to finish a letter — from Finnegans Wake to Omnium’s Cake! And to be served, perhaps, nach der ganzen Gans.
    [Edit: Is it ganzen?]

  8. The Ridger says:

    I immediately thought of breaking ground, myself.

  9. Stan says:

    The Ridger: That works too. Someone who breaks news and (new) ground could suppose, I suppose, that they are also breaking history.

  10. Claudia says:

    You’re all very interesting: post and comments.

    In French, we say une histoire brisée when a marriage or a love relationship is broken. It could be by death, divorce, or one person leaving the other. We have the same word histoire for story and history. Une histoire de France…Une histoire d’amour… I doubt we would ever say: Briser l’histoire to indicate a new historical event. But then, anything can happen. And nobody will consult or inform me….

  11. Stan says:

    That is interesting, Claudia, and the phrase histoire brisée is new to me. Since history is, in a way, the telling and recording of stories to create a (‘true’) narrative of the species, it makes sense that history and story have a common etymological ancestry, and indeed never diverged in French.

  12. Sean Jeating says:

    And there’s but a tiny step from history to hysteria.

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