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Diversity, deviance, perversion, transgression, and the negative connotations of difference

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I love words of Latin origin for turning and going and progressing, which brings me to the cluster of diversity, deviance, perversion, and transgression. Interestingly, all of these have negative connotations, except for diversity, which has somehow escaped the specter of badness.

Let’s start with deviance. It’s from de-, Latin for “away from,” and via, Latin for “way” or “path.” Thus deviance means “going off the beaten path.” In its primary, popular definition, it means “disgusting, immoral criminality and/or sexual behavior.” Example: The deviance of pedophilia represents significant sexual dysfunction. In conclusion, deviance is gross.

Perversion is pretty close to deviance. From Latin pervertere, “to overthrow or overturn,” and thus from per-, “away from,” and Latin vertere, “to turn,” it means “turning the wrong way.” Perversion has never had positive connotations; it’s always about making changes for the worse. More recently, it has also developed connotations of deviant [har] sexuality, thanks to the sexologists of the end of the 1800s who used pervert to mean “someone who has sex in other than a prescribed heteronormative manner.” In conclusion, it’s another word of bad progression.

We now come to transgression. This is from Latin trans-, “through, across, or beyond,” and gressus, “going.” The sense is of “crossing a line” or “going beyond a [legal] limit.” Transgression thus connotes egregious behavior. More than that, it connotes sin, as it tends to be associated with the Christian characters Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil after God told them not to. Oh look — another term of disgusting degeneracy!

These few examples suggest that English words of Latin origin in which people lose their way tend to be loaded with negative judgment. So what’s up with diversity? Coming from Latin de-, “away from,” and vertere, “to turn,” why isn’t it like perversion and deviance? The source material for diversity is very similar to that of perversion and deviance, but somehow diversity has now ended up as a neutral English noun meaning “great variety.” Furthermore, diversity may even signify a positive celebration of the many differences, particularly among a group of people.

The deviation of diversity from the perverted connotations of its cousins becomes more puzzling when one learns that it used to have a negative definition, which is now obsolete. Diversity meant “contrariness or perverse adherence to something wrong” in English from the late 1400s and through the 1500s, but was out of use by the 1600s.


I wish that I had some definitive answer to the question of diversity’s goodness. I don’t, but it’s still fascinating to ponder.

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