English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

How diverse is diversity?

Q: I am helping promulgate the criteria for recruiting new members of a board of directors. At issue is “diversity.” I say it is now a code word for nonwhite or nonmale. That is, a white male, no matter how diverse his experience, doesn’t provide diversity. Others say “diversity,” without elaboration, could refer to experience. What do you think?

A: We’ve checked ten standard dictionaries, and none of them restrict the term “diversity” to race or gender.

All the dictionaries define “diversity” in general terms, such as a range of different things or the state of being varied. A few include additional definitions that refer to being more inclusive about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

We’ve also looked at several legal dictionaries, but couldn’t find the term “diversity,” except in a few relatively obscure usages.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a general definition that could encompass just about any difference: “The condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness.”

Although some people believe, as you do, that “diversity” primarily refers to race and gender, lexicographers clearly feel that most people use the term more broadly.

What do we think? If we were writing the criteria, we’d use the word “diversity” by itself, without citing any specific differences.

Some outsiders may misunderstand the term, but we assume that the main reason for the criteria is to guide board members, who should know by now what they mean by “diversity.”

Yes, the directors could cite specific kinds of diversity, especially if they were thinking of more than differences in race, gender, and ethnic origin, but the list would clutter up the criteria and almost certainly be incomplete.

Here, for example, is how the Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity at the University of California, San Francisco, defines the term:

“The variety of experiences and perspective which arise from differences in race, culture, religion, mental or physical abilities, heritage, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.”

Interestingly, there’s been a diversity of opinion about the meaning of “diversity” since the word entered English in the 1300s. In fact, the differences date from the term’s Old French and Latin ancestors.

In Old French, the term diverseté (or diversité) meant difference, oddness, wickedness, or perversity, according to the OED.

However, the noun “diversity” as well as the adjective “diverse” ultimately come from the Latin diversus, which means opposite, separate, different, contrary, or hostile, and which is the source of the English word “diversion” (a turning away from the fatiguing and the mundane).

The adjective first appeared in the late 13th century and the noun in the early 14th.

In English, the word “diversity” has meant difference, variety, unlikeness, distinction, perversity, evil, and mischief over the years, not to mention a couple of technical electrical and radio usages. Now, that’s diversity.

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

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