Diversity / University

Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: If “diversity” means “difference and variation,” what does “university” mean? Are these words related somehow? — Travis Williams.

You betcha. “Diversity” and “university” are indeed related, not only to each other, but to a rather large, lumbering herd of other words. The common building block in all these words is the Latin verb “vertere,” which means, literally, “to turn,” but has developed a wide range of figurative uses based on that general sense of “turning.”

“Diversity” as a noun is, in its simplest form, the quality of being “diverse,” an adjective meaning either “differing from each other” (“Despite the regulations regarding proper uniform, the volunteers showed up wearing a diverse range of clothing”) or “composed of distinct elements, qualities or characteristics” (“Columbus is a diverse city, composed of both diehard Buckeye fans and people who have better things to do in the fall, such as watching squirrels duke it out with chipmunks at the bird feeder”). The specific root of “diverse” is the Latin verb “divertere” (the prefix “di” or “dis,” meaning “aside”) meaning “to turn aside.” The same root gave us our English verb “to divert,” and a close relative, “divortere,” gave us “divorce,” wherein folks “turn away” a spouse. Meanwhile, back in Latin, the participle form “diversus” (literally “turned aside”) came to mean “separate,” and, filtered through Old French, became our “diverse” meaning “separate” or “different.” Interestingly, “diverse” was also adopted into English from Old French in the form “divers,” with the slightly different meaning of “several” (“There are directions to be given to divers workmen before I start,” 1860). “Diversity” first appeared as a noun in the 14th century with the basic sense of “varied;” for a while in the 15th and 16th centuries it actually meant the quality of “deviating from accepted behavior,” i.e., being wrong or evil, but with the rise of democracy as a governing system “diversity” acquired its modern positive connotations.

The root of “university” is “universe,” meaning the sum of everything, the cosmos, which was borrowed, via Old French, from the Latin “universum.” That Latin word combined our pal “vertere” (to turn) with “uni” (one) to give a basic sense of “turned into one,” or “all taken together.” The term “university” in our modern scholastic sense dates to the 14th century, and originally referred to the gathering of various scholarly societies, guilds, student bodies and the like within one organization of learning. The goal of such “universities” was to offer structured higher education in a variety of non-vocational subjects and award degrees to graduates.

There are, as I noted above, a wide variety of other English words that spring from that handy Latin “vertere,” including “version,” “versus,” “verse,” “adverse,” “vertigo,” “vertical,” “invert,” “pervert,” “revert,” “convert,” “conversation,” and so on until the cows come home. “Advertise,” for instance, comes from the Latin “advertere” (to turn towards), and originally meant “to warn.” The modern meaning of “offer two Big Macs for a buck” only appeared in the 18th century. Many of these words begin with standard Latin prefixes such as “in” (in), “ad” (to), “con” (against), “re” (again) and so on, but have acquired meanings substantially beyond the simple blocks of which they are built.

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