The Grammarphobia Blog

Deviant behavior

Q: Which is correct: a social “deviate” or a social “deviant”?

A: Either one. They’re both standard English, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb “deviate,” meaning to stray or turn aside or depart from accepted norms, dates from 1635, according to the OED. It comes from the Latin deviare, which means, more or less, to go off the road – it includes via, meaning road.

The adjectives “deviate” and “deviant,” which originally meant remote or different, weren’t used in the modern sense to describe abnormal behavior until the 20th century.

The first modern citation for the adjective “deviate” used this way is in a 1945 report on children in South Africa: “If the reaction of the individual is in conflict with the generally accepted manner of reaction or differs from it in a striking way, such behaviour is deviate.”

The earliest citation for “deviant” in this sense, according to the OED, is from a 1935 book about sex and temperament that says “deviant men often choose deviant women” for marriage.

The words “deviate” and “deviant” can also be nouns, meaning a person who strays from normal standards of behavior. As nouns, they’re relatively new, entering English only in the 20th century.

Sorry if I’ve deviated too far from your original question!

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