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Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scenario) says

In this sense, scenarios should not be used to speculate on what has happened in the past.

Oxford advanced dictionary says

  1. a description of how things might happen in the future.

So what pithy word should I use to describe an event that could have happened in the past?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Despite what Wikipedia may tell you, there is nothing preventing you from using scenario to refer to past events, especially if the actual circumstances are unknown or unclear: From NOAD:

scenario |səˈne(ə)rēˌō; -ˈnär-| noun ( pl. -os)
a written outline of a movie, novel, or stage work giving details of the plot and individual scenes : imagine the scenarios for four short stories.
• a postulated sequence or development of events : a possible scenario is that he was attacked after opening the front door.
• a setting, in particular for a work of art or literature : the scenario is World War II.

Note that the last two example usages concern themselves with past events.

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What's wrong with "a scenario"?

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Umm. Nothing, as you presumably know. The advantage of @Robusto's answer is that he explains why there's nothing wrong with it. –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '11 at 13:43
    
@FumbleFingers: Not every question deserves a full answer. –  Marcin Jul 9 '11 at 14:40
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@Marcin: This would work better as a comment on the question, rather than an answer... –  psmears Jul 9 '11 at 15:26

Calling it a counterfactual is another possibility, historiographically speaking:

Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as virtual history, is a form of historiography which attempts to answer "what if" questions known as counterfactuals. It seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had an outcome which was different from that which did in fact occur.

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A counterfactual history virtually by definition is one known not to have actually happened. OP's usage is concerned with possible, but not actually known to have happened, which is a different thing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '11 at 13:42

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