Lexicon Love

It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use—and frankly I love it when I am—but I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.

Here’s what I read. It was a story about an old man telling the events of his life. He had been all over the world and had many experiences, some good, some bad. He said, “My life has been divers and colorful.”

And I thought, hmmm. Divers or diverse?

So I went to my handy-dandy argument settler and all-round first source for fact checking. That is, my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (online version © 2013).

Main Entry: di·verse
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French divers, from Latin diversus, from past participle of divertere
Date: 14th century
1 : differing from one another : UNLIKE <people with diverse interests>
2 : composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities <a diverse population>
synonym see DIFFERENT

Main Entry: di·vers
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse
Date: 14th century
: VARIOUS

The online edition offers audio pronunciation, so I listened to that a few times: dy-VERSE and DY-verz. Then, of course, I began to overthink it. Diverse, after all, seemed to mean variety. And divers meant various. Oh, good grief—what did the old man mean to say?

When I posed this question to my Facebook friends, I got the answer quickly, although I didn’t realize it in the moment. “Divers: People in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.,” one friend typed.

Yes, but that’s a noun. I was talking about the adjective. And context wasn’t helping me.

So I checked the thesaurus:

Entry Word: diverse
Function: adjective
1. Synonyms: DIFFERENT, disparate, dissimilar, distant, divergent, unalike, unequal, unlike, unsimilar, various
Synonyms DISTINCT 1, different, discrete, separate, several, various
Related Word contrasted, contrasting, contrastive; contradictory, contrary, opposite
Contrasted Words: equal, equivalent, same
Antonyms: identical, selfsame
2. Synonyms: MANIFOLD, diversiform, multifarious, multifold, multiform, multiplex, multivarious

Entry Word: divers
Function: adjective
Synonyms SEVERAL 3, some, sundry, various

A little more research was in order, because these still seemed very similar. I found this: “The archaic adjective divers means various or many. Diverse means having great variety.”

That’s a little more helpful. It’s archaic, which is lexicon talk for past its sell-by date. Not used much anymore. Except, as the online OED says, “in legal and scriptural phraseology.” Or, probably, formal or poetic writing. Tolkien used divers in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is no doubt where I’d read it.

Bottom line: diverse, etymologically related to divers, has its own meaning (different) but it has taken on aspects of divers too (various). Divers has faded from use. It’s not likely you’ll need it. Most folks will see the word and think “people in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.”

Tweet: I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.
Tweet: It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use. Then, of course, I began to overthink it.

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4 Comments

  1. Adam says:

    But if it’s an old man saying it, you could argue that “divers” is still part of his vocabulary. Right?

    • Jamie says:

      Oh, absolutely! Divers would definitely have been in the old man’s vocabulary. The question still remains, through: what did he mean?
      “My life experiences have been many and colorful” (divers) … or
      “My my life experiences have been colorful and of great variety” (diverse).

      After a discussion about whether or not people would read it as a mistake—or would even care or notice—the author decided to use diverse.

  2. Jan Thompson says:

    The word “divers” is aplenty in the 1611 and 1907 editions of the King James Bible. Examples:

    “And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying” (2 Samuel 13:19).

    “And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far” (Mark 8:3).

    If the meaning of “divers” is as you described, i.e. various/sundry/some/several, and perhaps also kinds/types, then the sentence your client wrote could make sense in a philosophical way: “My life has been divers and colorful” could mean “My many-splendored life, my colorful life.”

    Interesting sentence, that :-)

    • Jamie says:

      Absolutely! Either word would work. It all boiled down to “what did the old man mean to say?” I consulted with the author. :)

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