[lg policy] Language Log: Are you of diversity?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 14 14:19:46 UTC 2010

Are you of diversity?

May 13, 2010 @ 6:12 am · Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Peeving

Language Log reader Jan Dawson saw the preposition phrase of diversity
in this passage, and knew immediately what it meant:

"Any practitioner of diversity will tell you that you can't bring in a
few token people and get a real diversity of viewpoint," said Pamela
Harris, the executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at the
Georgetown Law Center.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/us/politics/11women.html)  It
seemed fairly clear to Jan (and I think she's right) that of diversity
here means something like "belonging to one of the formerly excluded
groups associated with references to diversity such as women,
Hispanics, African Americans, etc." — it's analogous to the common
meaning of the phrase of color in phrases like person of color.

To be more technical, of diversity is not the complement of the noun
practitioner (though practitioner does take complements, as in
practitioner of dental surgery); practitioner in this context means
"law practitioner", i.e., "lawyer" (the complement is implicit), and
of diversity is a modifier. Pamela Harris means "practitioner (of law)
who is a member of one of the formerly excluded groups associated with
references to diversity such as women, Hispanics, African Americans,
etc.". I have to confess that I find this usage not just novel (though
it is established: person of diversity already gets more than 700
Google hits), but actually ghastly.

Don't be shocked. I am allowed to have esthetic reactions to new
phrasal coinages. What Language Log rails against is not the mere
having of emotional reactions to linguistic change, but the attempt to
force those reactions on others as authoritarian rules, and the
practice of making false empirical claims about what is grammatical
and what is not. I am not saying there is anything ill-formed or
illogical about the phrase that Jan points out. It will probably catch
on, and become an ordinary unremarkable part of the English language
within a few decades. I'm not telling you that you shouldn't use
phrases like person of diversity. I'm just saying its combination of
syntactic unusualness and mealy-mouthedness makes me shudder. That's
purely a fact about me, and it's of virtually no consequence; I didn't
like the phrase person of color either.

I'm not even saying there is no role or motivation for a phrase like
person of diversity. It is apparently intended to pick out people who
are not white European or Jewish males. What white European and Jewish
males have in common is that they are taken to be people who don't
need diversity-enhancement programs to increase their representation
in the professions or access to education or wealth because they are
already perfectly capable of getting good professional jobs and good
educations and chances for wealth and already do too far too well in
these domains.

But to say that white European or Jewish males will be barred from
some job or actively dispreferred for it sounds raw and ugly in its
exclusionariness: one could hardly defend it against a charge of
racial and gender discrimination. A positive word or phrase is needed
for the class of people who are thought to merit help from
diversity-enhancement programs. Hence the coining of a phrase to
denote such people. It makes perfect sense. Especially to someone like
me who has never been an opponent of affirmative action or diversity
enhancement programs.

But I won't be using the phrase, because for reasons I would find it
hard to specify clearly it is repulsive to me. My choice. It's not
binding on you.

May 13, 2010 @ 6:12 am · Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Peeving


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