We once again spent some time at the beach, watching divers people in the water.

Yes, that’s punctuated correctly. Yes, it’s spelled correctly too.

What, do you dislike diversity? Then the English lexicon is not for you. Many a word, over the course of the years, gets diverted one way and another, until it has some number of forms manifesting some variety of sense. We see person and parson, victuals and vittlesvermin and varmint, and carmine and crimson. We even see it in to and too (yes, that’s right, they started out as the same word). So why wouldn’t we have divers and diverse

We do have them, anyway, both coming from Old French divers, from Latin diversus, originally from roots meaning ‘turned different ways’ – the same as also gave us divert. But does there seem something particularly pervers, I mean perverse, about this doublet? 

Well, yes, there’s the issue that divers is also the plural of diver (and is pronounced the same way as this divers). There’s also the fact that if you know French, you know that the word divers is not pronounced at all the same as how we in English say divers or diverse. (On the other hand, it is said the same as French d’hiver, ‘of winter’. I’m sure that signifies something.) But mainly, it’s hard to say why we would need two forms of this word. It seems like diversity for its own sake. Is it just that, contrary to a current popular usage, we may reasonably hold that one thing (or person) cannot be diverse? So we just have to have at least two?

I’d say there are two main reasons for having both (leaving aside the basic reason that we just do because historically it just happened that way – this is true, but nothing forces us to use both if we don’t want to). The first is that – for those who have become acquainted with divers in the wild – it has a quaint and old-fashioned air to it, the sort of word you see in texts that also have the old “long s”: ſeen in ſundry ſeaſons and divers manners (note that since the only s in divers is at the end of the word, it is not a long one – perhaps ironically).

The second reason is that whereas diverse carries an implication of considerable difference between the sundry parts, divers can mean simply ‘different’ or ‘various’ without implication of how different (the Oxford English Dictionary quotes Richard Chenevix Trench’s book The Fitness of Holy Scripture for Unfolding the Spiritual Life of Men: “We have the divers statements of St. Paul and St. James—divers, but not diverse”). It can also simply mean ‘several’ or ‘sundry’ or ‘a number of’ – so when I say there were divers people in the water, I can just mean that there were a fair few splashing about, with no particular comment on how different they were one from another.

You might object that most people don’t really know or appreciate this subtlety, and that’s true. But we don’t always write for most people. People are diverse, and certain subsets have exceptional inclinations and predilections. It’s OK, from time to time, to know your audience and know that they might find divers lexical charms on the necklace of prose to be welcome diversions.

One response to “divers

  1. A schoolboy joke from 75 years ago in England: Why do ducks dive? For divers reasons. Why do they come up again? For sundry purposes.

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