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.


Janice Childers said...

Ah, Gordon, you have certainly not disappointed with your thorough treatment of the "history buff"-calling epidemic! Very entertaining stuff -- I laughed aloud when I read about Billy Bob Thornton's history buff side and his desire to share that interest. The thought of "Bad Santa" wanting to teach anyone anything was just too much. On a serious note, I do quite agree with you that it is a misnomer and a bit of an insult to refer to someone who studies/teaches/interprets history as a profession as a "history buff." However, I do think you may need to consider a vacation to get your blood pressure back under control!

Larry T. Nix said...

I actually define "library history buff" on the home page of my website http://www.libraryhistorybuff.com/. "A library history buff, also sometimes referred to as a library history nut, is an individual with a passion for library history and its artifacts." I wanted to be sure that I didn't call myself a library historian which I am not. On my blog I have a tribute to the library historian at http://libraryhistorybuff.blogspot.com/search/label/library%20historians. Larry, the Library History Buff.

Betsy Thorpe said...

Guilty! I am guilty of using the term "history buff", however I would never use it to describe a degreed historian. For example if you and I were working on a project together and I reported on it I would write "historian Gordon Belt, and local history buff Betsy Thorpe"......

To me the difference between a historian and history buff is formal education.

I have really never liked the term and have occasionally described myself as a "student of history" rather than a buff.

In one Sienfeld epsidode Jerry trys to help George make a career choice and George says " I could be a history buff", How do you become a buff?"

Betsy Thorpe said...

I am going to join your effort and will also try to find some interesting uses of the term history buff. Some of your examples are really funny.

(in all honesty I could really be described as an "avid Catholic and devoted history buff".)

Gordon said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments on this plague of the journalism profession. Doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor about this... Use of "history buff" is so pervasive that you have to laugh to keep from crying!

Betsy Thorpe said...

Gordon I would like to amend my comment on the difference between a historian and a history buff.

I said "To me the difference between a historian and history buff is formal education."

What I should have said to is "a formal education and incomparable knowledge".


Anonymous said...

Just thought I would throw in my two bits. I am as you called it a degreed historian however I still consider myself a history buff and take no offense at the term. If I was not a history buff I would not have studied history I would not teach history and I would thoroughly hate my job. History buff is not a term of insult but more like a term of endearment to me. I love history therefore I am a history buff. Perhaps I am a more serious history buff than when I was a child however I am a history buff because I am a lifelong lover of history. I would consider myself a historian but that does not exclude me from being a history buff. I appreciate your concern, respect, and defense for my profession but I have always been and will always be a history buff and proud of it. Am I insane? Possibly. Am I completely mental? Probably. Am I a history buff? Absolutely.

Glori said...

I use the term 'history buff' to describe people like me; people who have a passion for history. But I'd never use it to describe a professional. That's just silly. I see those people as being on another level. You're absolutely right in saying that it's an insult to call historians, etc, history buffs! I'M a history buff. THEY'RE professionals in their field!

Gordon Belt said...

I think it's important for readers to know that I do not hold any disdain for anyone who calls themselves a "history buff." That is my fault for not articulating this opinion more clearly. I chose humor to make a point in this piece, which I will admit is a bit of a departure from the normal tone of this blog.

In this instance, my ire has been, and always will be, directed towards journalists who use the term "history buff" interchangeably with that of a "historian." They are not one in the same, unless, of course, the historian chooses to embrace the term.

I'm actually amazed that this blog post still has resonance nearly four years after it was first published. Thank you all for your interest.

Kari said...

History lover. History buff. Demeaning to professionals? I think you should be enthusiastic about whatever your profession is. We should all be buffs AND lovers.

Kari Roueche

Gordon Belt said...


Enthusiasm for one's profession and taking the job seriously are not mutually exclusive. I am very enthusiastic about what I do for a living, and I love helping other people, especially "history buffs," acquire a deeper understanding about the past.

Knowing you as a fellow archivist and a professional colleague here in Tennessee, we have a common bond. We have both gone through the intellectual rigors of scholarship to earn master’s degrees in our chosen field. I simply believe that our hard work and professional achievements deserve more respect from journalists who really should know better.

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