A history of the word ‘divisive’: once admirable, now a criticism

Steven Poole
·1 min read
<span>Photograph: Addictive Stock Creatives/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Addictive Stock Creatives/Alamy

The report from the UK’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was rapidly criticised as “divisive”, something that one should never be in politics unless it is to one’s advantage, as it was for those who agitated to divide Britain from the EU. But when was the golden age in which we all were of one mind on any topic?

It was once possible to be admirably divisive: exercising potent discrimination, as the sciences do; “to devise” – to imagine or invent – comes from the same Latin root. But the newfangled word was just as soon adopted, in the 17th century, to mean encouraging of dissent or discord, as when in 1649 the poet John Milton ridiculed the claims of Ulster Presbyterians that they were not “sowers of Sedition, or authors of divisive motions”.

One reliable way to avoid being “divisive” is to speak in nothing but pleasant cliches. In the mean time we may reflect on the wisdom of Thomas Carlyle, who remarked in 1829 that “Vanity is of a divisive, not of a uniting nature”. In that case, some portion of British divisions are surely being driven from the top.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.