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How Two Inoffensive Words Became the Most Inflammatory Phrase in English

The affirmative action story

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

On their own, “affirmative” and “action” are two of the more benign words in the English language; taken together, they’re incendiary. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans oppose affirmative action, and on Tuesday, the Supreme Court echoed the sentiment of the majority of Americans, upholding Michigan’s ban on considering race as a factor in public college admissions.

But the phrase "affirmative action" hasn’t always been a trigger for controversy. “The original meaning [of 'affirmative action'], which is supported by many legal citations throughout the nineteenth century, was ‘action taken to affirm an established policy,’” says Orin Hargraves, a linguist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It had a long history in American English nearly 100 years before it began to be narrowed to the sense in which we use it today.”

Nic Subtirelu, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Georgia State University, pointed me to the TIME magazine corpus, a database that tracks the words published in TIME articles between 1923 and 2006. The first pairings of “affirmative” with “action” appear in the 1920s and 1930s, in connection with organized labor. “The term referred to redressing past discrimination by rehiring someone who was wrongly fired on the basis of their union membership,” Subtirelu says. In 1932, a reporter for TIME wrote that the American Federation of Labor “can not take affirmative action against a local union officer.” It wasn’t until 1969 that TIME first used the phrase in reference to racial and other minorities.

John F. Kennedy is thought to have been the first to use “affirmative action” to convey something close to what it means today: In 1961, he issued an executive order mandating that federally funded contractors “take affirmative action” to avoid racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination in their hiring practices. Throughout the 1970s, the term was associated with gender discrimination as often as it was linked to racial bias; in the 1990s and 2000s, Subtirelu said, “TIME started to use the phrase chiefly to talk about race and especially about African-Americans.”

A Google n-gram—which graphs the frequency of phrases in over 5 million books published between 1880 and 2008—shows that the term began gaining traction in the 1970s, peaking in the late 1990s.

“Affirmative action” isn’t the only way to describe the practice of granting minorities special treatment. In Canada and South Africa, it’s known as “employment equity.” In India, spots set aside for members of under-represented groups are called “reservations.” The British favor the term “positive discrimination”—a much more negative expression that’s also more honest. It calls attention to, rather than ignores, the fact that the policy is—for better or for worse—discriminatory. "Positive discrimination," by whatever name you call it, is illegal in the UK.

Interestingly, the term “positive discrimination” does appear to have originated in the U.S.: Its first usage, according to the OED, was in 1963, in the Wisconsin Daily Journal: “The job discrimination against Negroes has been so widespread and has continued for so long that you may have to engage in some kind of compensatory positive discrimination to overcome the effects of this long-standing injustice.” But perhaps it’s no coincidence that the less savory term caught on in a country less amenable to the practice.