Meanings: “Diversity”

September 23, 2012

“Diversity,” an essential term now in higher education, once meant wickedness as well as difference.  As the word takes on positive connotation 18th century, it is not variation in race, gender or sexual orientation that is lifted up, but variation in interests and property.  The quote from The Federalist Papers (#60, Hamilton) given in the etymology.com entry is telling:

diversity (n.):  mid-14c., “quality of being diverse,” mostly in a neutral sense, from O.Fr. diversité (12c.) “difference, diversity, unique feature, oddness:” also “wickedness, perversity,” from L. diversitatem (nom. diversitas) “contrariety, contradiction, disagreement;” also, as a secondary sense, “difference, diversity,” from diversus “turned different ways” (in Late Latin “various”), pp. of divertere (see divert).

 Negative meaning, “being contrary to what is agreeable or right; perversity, evil” existed in English from late 15c. but was obsolete from 17c. Diversity as a virtue in a nation is an idea from the rise of modern democracies in the 1790s, where it kept one faction from arrogating all power (but this was not quite the modern sense, as ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, etc. were not the qualities in mind):

“The dissimilarity in the igredients which will compose the national government, and still more in the manner in which they will be brought into action in its various branches, must form a powerful obstacle to a concert of views in any partial scheme of elections. There is sufficient diversity in the state of property, in the genius, manners, and habits of the people of the different parts of the Union, to occasion a material diversity of disposition in their representatives towards the different ranks and conditions in society.” [“Federalist” #60, Feb. 26, 1788 (Hamilton)]

 Specific focus (in a positive sense) on race, gender, etc. is from 1992.

I was struck this morning by the common roots in “diversity” and “adversity:” one meaning ‘turned in different ways’ and the other meaning ‘turned against.’  Both share a root with “university,” ‘the gathering of the whole.’

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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