I've heard many times phrases like "this particular thing has been a fact of life throughout recorded history".

In fact there is this definition:

Recorded history or written history is a historical narrative based on a written record or other documented communication.

That seems to contradict this widely accepted definition of history stating that history is "the study of the past as it is described in written documents". And "prehistory" (before history) is considered "events occurring before written record".

History (from Greek ἱστορία, historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation") is the study of the past as it is described in written documents. Events occurring before written record are considered prehistory.

From this Wikipedia article quoting this sources:

Joseph, Brian (Ed.); Janda, Richard (Ed.) (2008). The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing (published 30 December 2004). p. 163. ISBN 978-1-4051-2747-9.

"History Definition". Retrieved 21 January 2014.

"What is History & Why Study It?". Retrieved 21 January 2014

So if history implies records, and the time before writting was invented is considered prehistory, why is "recorded history" so widely used?

  • 7
    Yes, it's redundant by definition, if history is used in that technical sense. However, one can also "study ... the past" by examining artifacts or by reviewing oral tradition ('spoken' history), neither of which requires writing. Note that it's hard to justify calling something in the past prehistory just because it wasn't written down - e.g. some of the work anyone did yesterday.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 18, 2017 at 15:07
  • 5
    I personally don't equate 'history' with 'the written record'. To me things that occurred before writing are also historical, just a little more difficult to learn about. 'Recorded history' doesn't sound pleonastic to me, just an emphasis about events occurring and we know about them by writing. But there is the academic distinction of prehistory (archeology) vs history (written) (as you note). So technically 'recorded history' is a little redundant, but doesn't usually feel that way (if my perception is common).
    – Mitch
    Feb 18, 2017 at 15:08
  • 3
    You're being selective in your choice of definitions. ODO has the broader definition (1) 'The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.' (amongst others). Feb 18, 2017 at 16:05
  • 2
    My pet peeve is use of the cliche, "never in recorded history," which returns about 64,700 hits on Google, my favorite of which from the first page is, "Never in recorded history has any subject been discussed as much, and understood as little, as vacuum systems and their effects on carpet cleaning." Hahahaha! "Never in recorded history" is also a favorite phrase of politicians and bad journalists, who somehow never seem to document their claims. :-) Feb 18, 2017 at 16:12
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it looks like a peeve Feb 18, 2017 at 17:04

2 Answers 2


One of definitions of history is:

The whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing.
‘the history of the Empire’

Clearly, some of these events can be recorded, and some not. If there was no one recording these events at the time they took place, and we have learned about them through other means, they are still history - but they are not recorded history. Consider for example the history of the Moon (to take an extreme example).

Logic apart, the phrase never in recorded history is a figure of speech, similar to since time immemorial or for as long as I can remember and such. I don't think any of these are meant to be taken literally.

It's worth noting that the idiom since time immemorial is defined by the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs as:

since a very long time ago. (Literally, since time before recorded history.)

(emphasis added by me)

Go argue with that.


It really depends on how you define "history." If your definition states that to be history someone must have preserved the information, then yes, it is redundant. But one could also look at history as anything that has ever happened. Of those events that have happened, only a small percentage of them are witnessed, remembered, and eventually recorded. Also, it depends on what you mean by recorded. Do oral or pictoral methods count, or must it be written? If other methods don't count, why not? What makes them different?


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