divisive – ngram

How often do we hear the accusation that somebody (or perhaps more often, somebody’s political views) are “divisive?” Have we always been this divided? Or have we only recently been unable to get along?

As always, if you are unfamiliar with Google’s ngram viewer, here’s an introduction to this powerful tool.

Use of the word “divisive” is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, as this chart shows.

divisivePrior to about 1940 the word “divisive” was used relatively infrequently. Then something happened. Its usage increased fairly quickly and steadily for the following decades; briefly leveling out around 1970 before continuing its rise.

So were people not “divisive” prior to 1940? World War One took place well before then – and wars tend to be about as “divisive” as folks can get – yet there wasn’t so much as a bump in the usage of the word around then. Other than a small bump around 1840 the word hardly fluctuated at all for over a century.

Yet in those bygone eras I think it is safe to assume people’s views were still largely divided. We didn’t all agree on everything. It would seem our views were divided, but we were not; what an interesting concept.

These days the accusation of “divisive” gets thrown around a lot, but it does not merely mean that our views are different, but somehow that the difference in our views causes divisions between us as people. And yet that never seemed to be the case prior to about 1940. So what changed? I observed another interesting correlation that might shed light on the subject, but that will have to wait until next week.