Wednesday, 30 January 2013

You Div


I've been asked to explain the origin of div. That's the British slang term div, meaning idiot. I'm afraid there will be no explanation. Or to be more precise, there'll be many of them.

Now the OED lists two divs. One is an evil spirit in Persian mythology, the other is a mathematicians shortening of divergence. But the OED has nothing to say on the cries of "You div", and doesn't acknowledge its existence. It does have divvy, of which more later.

Chambers Dictionary of Slang does record the word as being in use since the 1970s. But it says that the etymology is unknown, unless it has something to do with Duh, which seems unlikely.

This shortfall, though is thoroughly made up for by the Urban Dictionary, which confidently gives three etymologies, which all contradict each other.

Div is a scouse word for idiot. It is short for divvy which in turn is a corruption of Deva. The Deva Hospital was a well known mental hospital (since renamed the West Cheshire Hospital) on the outskirts of Chester. Chester was founded by the Romans who named it Deva. 

Actually originates from prison slang in the UK. A job often given to the lowest inmates was to put cardboard dividers into boxes. Someone given this job was a 'divider' or a 'div'. Now used as an insult to those who display stupidity.


Derived from "individual needs child", a cruel schoolyard insult. Not at all politically correct. Someone who's "not quite normal", an idiot, spaz, etc.

I'm not quite sure that I understand the last one. The Deva Hospital did indeed exist at about the right time (it was so named from 1953 till 1970). However, the OED does have divvy, meaning daft. This is first recorded in 1975 as market traders' slang in Boston, Lincolnshire on the other side of the country from Chester.

Then there was a writer in The Guardian in 1987 who said "I first started using the term ‘divvy’ some 20 years ago... When I was growing up in Liverpool in the 1960's it was commonly assumed to be derived from the word ‘individual’", which would seem to support the Urban Dictionary's third attempt. #

So the short and the long of it is that I'm rather stumped. Does anybody remember div before 1975?

Short for this?

18 comments:

  1. I always thought it was short for divot - A small tuft of grass churned up by a bad golf swing. is that just me?

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    2. I would have thought the same thing, but I'm guessing this is an across the pond div-ide. :)

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  2. I remember it being used in the early 50's when I was a child listening to my grandparents divi-ing(sp) up the proceeds of their winnings at bingo. I understood it to mean dividing/sharing between however many family members were there.

    This was post-war Lancashire cotton mill life :)

    Interesting topic - thank you!
    Carole-Ann

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  3. As children, we would call not-too-bright schoolmates 'dibby'. It feels that this was derived from 'dizzy' or 'dopey' but not certain.

    Liverpool kid brought up in the East Midlands

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  4. Not just you Phil. I remember kids being referred to as "divot" back in the late 60s, early 70s. Div was a later shortened version.

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  5. I was born in 1950 and in my later childhood I can clearly remember a person being referred to as being "divvy" which meant simple, stupid or just plain thick. This was later shortened to them being "a div".

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  6. Divvy, meaning to divide or share, was a common expression in the U.S. throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s and perhaps even still. As I recall it had no pejorative connotations.

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  7. Since we're all busily going off-topic, can I just mention that the Dividend payments my mother used to collect from the Co-op back in the 50s were known as "the divvy"?

    I thank you.

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  8. I remember when i was teaching Horticultural NVQ level 1/2 the students used to call them Not Valid Qualification whereas 'we' used the term Not Very Quick....

    Laurie -

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  9. It was definitely in use when I was at school in 1970's Merseyside and I remember my mum (Liverpool) would refer to the Deva hospital in terms of mental illness: 'You'll send me to Deva!' as in 'You're driving me mad!'
    I'm sure it must predate 'individual needs child' - that sounds far too politically correct for that era!

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  10. I, too, remember divot and div from the late sixties and early seventies in South Lincolnshire. I assumed that a divot was a variant on the theme of clod.

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  11. Well, I don't know if that resolves or complicates matters. My slang dictionary had "divot" as 80s and Scots.

    Broken Biro's comment seems to make the Deva hospital much more likely.

    Elvis Brown, may I ask where you were brought up?

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  12. I was brought up in Chester and spent some time watching my Father play cricket in the grounds of the Deva Hospital - not an inpatient I may add.

    As children we called each other Divvy or Div as a derogative term. But would also use it as to "Divvy Up" as markonsea mentioned.

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  13. Although the timing offers no evidence, my first encounter of div and divvy in the derogatory sense was from Liverpool children in 1990. Until then, I had only heard it as "to divvy up" and the co-op divvy - and, sadly, as Div (capitalised), in my tensor calculus classes, short for Divergence.

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  14. It was used in an episode of "Only Fools and Horses" first shown in 1981.

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    1. A seriously intersting collection of possible origins! It was in common use when I was at secondary school in North Nottinghamshire (1961-69). At the time many pejoratives seemed to be derived from insulting references to "Geordies", the Irish and the seriouly poor and uneducated working class. Having some Irish connections I'd always assumed (without serious review) that "div" was related to the Irish prepositional pronoun "dibh" (pronounced "div") and its emphatic form "dibhsa" (pronounced "divsa"). It just means "of you" but I assumed it was the shorthand version of a longer insult... in reality its one of those words that probably has multiple origins... great blog though...

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  15. I thought it was a Bolton term. Another word for clod, (as in a sod of earth). Also known as a clot, a clumsy kid.

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