The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it bad to discriminate?

Q: Is there a difference between “discriminating” and “discriminatory”?  Does the latter word imply disapproval of the discrimination?

A: Each of these adjectives, “discriminating” and “discriminatory,” can be used in both positive and negative ways. 

Like the verb they come from, “discriminate,” they have to do with making distinctions, which is not a bad thing in itself. Making distinctions is unjust only when it’s done for unjust purposes.

But although the adjectives overlap, it’s our feeling that “discriminating” (used as an adjective and not as a participle) is a less loaded word than “discriminatory.”

Of the two, “discriminating” is more likely to be used in a positive way. You might say, for example, that a connoisseur of wines has “discriminating tastes” (not “discriminatory tastes”).

“Discriminatory” seems to be the choice when the meaning is negative—as in “discriminatory housing practices” (not “discriminating housing practices”).

We aren’t the only ones to perceive a difference here. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “discriminating” in mostly positive terms and “discriminatory”  in largely negative ones.

The dictionary’s leading definition of “discriminating” is positive: “able to recognize or draw fine distinctions or judgments: a discriminating collector of fine books.

Next in order is “serving to distinguish; distinctive: a discriminating characteristic.

Last comes the meaning associated with injustice: “marked by or showing prejudice; discriminatory.”

As for “discriminatory,” the negative sense predominates. American Heritage’s first definition is “marked by or showing prejudice; biased.” The last is more neutral: “making distinctions.”

(We’re citing American Heritage here because this dictionary lists a word’s central meaning first. Merriam-Webster’s lists the various meanings in their historical order.)

As we’ll explain later, there seems to some historical foundation for the difference between “discriminating” and “discriminatory.” But first let’s look into the verb that gave us these adjectives.  

“Discriminate” came into English in the early 1600s from the Latin discriminare, which means not only to distinguish or differentiate but also to divide or separate.

The first written use of “discriminate,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in a book on anatomy published in 1615.

The author, the English physician Helkiah Crooke, describes ligaments that serve “to discriminate or separate the right muscles from the left.”

This later usage appeared in a religious treatise published in 1637 by Bishop Joseph Hall: “The differences whereby we may discriminate counterfeit vertues from true.”

And William Penn used the word in his Perswasive to Moderation to Dissenting Christians (1685): “He sees the Where and What of Persons and Things: He discriminates, and makes that a rule of conduct.”

So in early usages, one who could “discriminate” was a person of discernment, and the ability to “discriminate” was an intellectual and spiritual asset.

Similarly, the 17th-century derivations “discriminating” and “discrimination” were positive or neutral when they first appeared. Negative senses of these words came along later, at about the time that “discriminatory” was introduced.

In post-Revolutionary American economics, the verb “discriminate” began to take on pejorative overtones when it was used to describe trading policies. 

The OED defines this sense of “discriminate” as meaning “to treat goods, trading partners, etc., more or less favourably according to circumstances.” In this sense, Oxford adds, “discriminate” is frequently used “with against (also in favour of).”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this use of the verb is from a letter written in 1786 by the American political economist Tench Coxe: “They do not discriminate against ships belonging to the other states, in any charge whatever.”

Finally, in mid-19th century America, “discriminate” acquired the familiar negative meaning it has today: “to treat a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, esp. on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.,” in the words of the OED.

This sense of the word, the dictionary notes, is frequently used with “against,” but it can also be used with “in favor of.”

Not surprisingly, the OED’s earliest citation is about racial discrimination. It’s from an anonymous novel about slavery published in Philadelphia in 1857, The Olive-Branch: or, White Oak Farm:

“The African race is placed under disabilities in every State in the Union but one. … As a race, the laws discriminate against them.” (In case you’re curious, the character being quoted refers to Maine as the exception.)

This later example comes from a 1913 issue of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) News: “Civil service rules barred him from discriminating in favor of the jobless and against men who worked on the streets.”

 Oxford cites a more recent example from Helena Kennedy’s book Just Law (2005): “I have frequently criticised judges for their hidebound attitudes to women or their unwillingness to see how the system discriminates.”

In short, “discriminate” was generally used as a positive or neutral term until it added negative social connotations in 19th-century American usage. And words derived from “discriminate” show the same pattern.

In the mid-1600s, the adjective “discriminating” meant “distinctive” or “distinguishing” when applied to things and “discerning” when applied to people.

Then in the 1780s, “discriminating” acquired its neutral economic meaning (favorable or unfavorable taxes, tariffs, etc.). 

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, according to the OED, that it added the negative sense of treating “a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, esp. on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”

Here are two of the negative 19th-century American examples cited in the dictionary:

“They [former slaves] will … be made the unhappy objects of ungodly, discriminating laws.” (From the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, 1865.)

“The section gives the Chinese the same rights as other citizens, and prohibits discriminating legislation by any State against immigrants from one foreign country over those from another.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle, 1870.)

While the other adjective, “discriminatory,” was neutral when first used in 1745, it added both positive and negative meanings in 19th-century America.

In the early 1800s, it was used to describe favorable or unfavorable trading policies. And in the late 1800s, it took on its principal meaning today: unjust or prejudicial, based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.

The OED’s earliest citation for this latter sense of the word is from an 1896 issue of the Galveston Daily News: “Discriminatory and repressionary restrictions.”

In summary, it seems clear that “discriminatory” is more closely associated with prejudicial treatment than “discriminating.”

This could be because “discriminatory” was the latecomer, arriving not long before “discriminate” and its other derivatives were beginning to take on negative meanings in American usage.

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