What is a "history buff"?

Hercules was definitely a history "buff."
Anyone who has followed me on Twitter recently knows that one of my pet peeves is use of the term "history buff" by professional writers who call themselves "journalists."

I don't necessarily have a problem with "history buffs." You don't have to have an advanced degree in history to take an active interest in the subject. All of us participate in making history and everyone interprets and narrates the past in some way. What I have a problem with are reporters who use the term "history buff" to describe people who are actual historians or who have studied history extensively and have an expertise in a particular era or subject. I think calling these folks "history buffs" demeans their professional accomplishments.

But maybe I'm taking this whole "history buff" argument a bit too seriously. Someone who follows my posts on Twitter recently pointed out to me that the etymology of the word "buff" actually has a different meaning than the one I've applied to the term. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "buff" as...

   'An enthusiast about going to fires' (Webster 1934); so called from the buff uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City in former times. Hence gen., an enthusiast or specialist. Chiefly N. Amer. colloq.

I guess the next time I meet a fireman I'll ask him if he's a "flame buff." I should ask my doctor if he considers himself a "medicine buff." If I need an attorney should I call a "law buff" or an actual lawyer? I'm not an etymologist, but I'm pretty sure that if you called these professionals "enthusiasts" or "buffs" they would not appreciate it one bit.

If I called Edward R. Murrow a "news buff" that cigarette
wouldn't be the only butt he kicked.
Use of the term "history buff" is prolific and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I wonder how journalists might feel about being called "news buffs"? I guess they would be okay with it if they were incredibly desperate for cash. Given the current State of the News Media, that day may not be far off.

When the newspaper industry dies under the weight of digital media maybe then those unemployed journalists will have more professional respect for those of us who have chosen history as our career. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to continue monitoring this form of professional disrespect and report it on my Twitter page whenever it occurs. Today I am appointing myself as the unofficial "History Buff Ombudsman" until further notice. Journalists be warned!

RELATED LINKS (Some colorful examples of the term "history buff" seen in other forms of popular media):

  • Michelle Moran, historical fiction author, and creator of the "History Buff" blog. Her blog's masthead image takes the phrase "history buff" to a whole other level.
  • TheHistoryBuff.com - Rachel describes herself as "an avid history buff and devout Catholic." How many Catholics would be offended if I called myself a "devout historian and avid religion buff"?
  • eHistoryBuff.com - Described as "one of America's fastest growing dealers in original authentic historical autographs and historical artifacts." Shouldn't some of this stuff be in an archives?
  • History Buff Gifts for Men - Among the historically relevant gift offerings are the "Hillary Nut Cracker" and "Amazing Levitating Globes." There's a dirty joke there just waiting to be told.
  • You can become a "history buff" by following the 9 easy steps on "How to Be a History Buff" outlined on wikiHow, The How-To Manual You Can Edit. "If reading through pages of information isn't your thing, look for fiction books based on history." Piece of cake!
  • Actor Billy Bob Thornton is a self-professed "history buff" who someday wants to teach history to your kids. I'm not sure the little crumb crunchers would learn anything, but it certainly would be an entertaining class.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.