Acting like a div yesterday:-

a stupid or foolish person

I started to wonder how this term of abuse came about. Urban Dictionary has a quaint tale:-

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.

which sounds somewhat contrived to me. Collins has it:-

C20: probably shortened and changed from deviant

Inky Fool, a website new to me, offers two other explanations:-

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.

and

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

Green's Dictionary of Slang suggests:-

perhaps related to DUH!

It seems to me that at least four of these explanations are wrong. Does anyone know the correct etymology of this term?

  • 2
    Nice! I never heard of this particular insult term before; thanks for helping me add to my repertoire. It's rather Brit, though. Might puzzle my fellow Yanks. – Cyberherbalist Sep 11 '13 at 16:20
  • 7
    Now I see that HTML has been using <div> to poke fun at us all these years. – Robusto Mar 25 '15 at 11:15
  • In the US I've only ever heard "dip" -- a stupid or clueless person. (Often the word is combined with "shit" as "dipshit" (an unsavory person), though it's not clear which is chicken and which egg.) I'll note that "dip" probably achieved greatest use in the 60s, and "dipshit" a little later. – Hot Licks Jul 15 '15 at 11:50
up vote 8 down vote accepted

OED has it "of uncertain origin", although "individual-needs" is a possibility.

divvy
B. n.2
A foolish or half-witted person.

1987 Guardian 2 Mar. 12/7, 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’.

  • 3
    Sounds plausible. At my middle school, the insult was sped for “special education”. – Jon Purdy Sep 13 '13 at 3:53

My answer is I don't know how the word, div or divvy originated.

I believe I first heard it being used on the BBC1 sitcom, Porridge, (1974-1977) starring Ronnie Barker. The television comedy was centred on a petty criminal, Norman Stanley Fletcher, sentenced to serve a five-year stretch at HMP Prison Slade. Perhaps due to its huge success and oft repeated shows the expression, div or divvy, spread throughout the UK. That's my theory; the book, Porridge The Complete Scripts with all the scripts taken from the show is in print, but unfortunately, there isn't an e-book version, so I can't confirm my instinct.

Nevertheless on the Internet theories abound as to its origin. Here are among the best I found.

From A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English By Eric Partridge

  • The excerpt suggests that the term divvy was used in borstals; a type of youth prison in the United Kingdom, and detention centres.

enter image description here

  • Perhaps div is a deviation of the words, dippy or diwified.

dippy

  • Alternatively an old slang term, meaning someone who guesses right about something without being an expert. (If you aren't an expert you must be either ignorant or a fool?)

enter image description here

  • Derived from divot, a clump of turf. And clump is just another expression for an idiot or foolish person.

enter image description here

From a Q&A Internet forum I found this nugget of information:

  1. A person that is a bit stupid, a waster or unemployed. The word Div/Divvy comes from a shortening of the Unemployment Dividend of the 1950's.

  2. A Northern English word from the mining community's use of different types of lamp whilst underground. The dangerous lamp nicknamed Davy Lamp was not very safe and tended to explode, this was replaced with the Geordie Lamp which was a lot safer. Colliers that went underground using a Davy Lamp soon started being called Divvies.

In the so-far-as-I could-tell excellent website, Inky Fool, in the comments section:

I remember kids being referred to as "divot" back in the late 60s, early 70s. Div was a later shortened version.

and

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.

Which both give further evidence or credence to the "divot digger" theory.

And finally but not least, a divvy officer, a slang term for a petty officer of the navy.

Screen shot taken from Selected Plays of Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) " MacNeice one of the foremost Irish poets of this century, but he was also a distinctive, gifted, and popular playwright. This unique selection of eight of MacNeice's best plays, most of which were written for BBC Radio..."

divvy officer

  • 3
    Thank you for that. The notion that it derives from divot is very interesting, as I can remember divot being used for extreme cases of div ness. I had assumed the formation was from div to divot, though. So now we have, by my count, eleven possibilities for the origin! – Brian Hooper Sep 13 '13 at 5:35
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    My pleasure. 3 hours worth of research etc. well spent if it has piqued your curiosity further still :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 13 '13 at 10:56
  • @Mari-LouA Will you marry me? – user24964 Sep 13 '13 at 14:40
  • @TheMathemagician Once was more than enough for me, but thank you for the compliment. :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 13 '13 at 19:26
  • now that was pretty badass – HaveAGuess Jun 19 '14 at 18:36

Div and divvi appear in Romani in Britain: The Afterlife of a Language (2010), by Yaron Matras, linguist at the University of Manchester:

fool n. div, divvi, divya ER divjo 'wild'

ER is European Romani. Here's some example corpus uses from the University of Manchester's Angloromani Dictionary:

he's a divvi

kek, don't mang that divvi, nash on

  • 1
    Thank you. You may also have found an answer to this question here. – Brian Hooper Sep 15 '13 at 12:29
  • @BrianHooper: Actually the other way round! I spotted div when reading FumbleFingers' answer about doylem. – Hugo Sep 15 '13 at 13:45

Div is a slang term for a stupid person.

E.g. :Shut up, you div!

These links may provide you some more info :

1) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=div

2) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=divvy

  • Div is definitely short for divvy (an idiot, a dope) but divvy (up) also means to divide something between people. The Urban Dictionary suggestion of divvy as slang for the dole (unemployment benefit) in the 70s sounds very plausible. – user24964 Sep 11 '13 at 18:02
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    Always cite your sources. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 26 '15 at 8:59

Being of the right age and birthplace I always assumed it was short for a person who was divergent from the name caller. Could mean anything the caller wanted and that was the most annoying thing about being called a divi.

  • I only ever heard div and divvy being used to mean stupid, slow, etc. For example, in our playground I wouldn't have heard div being used as an insult meaning someone was overweight, badly dressed, "weird", etc. – starsplusplus Mar 25 '15 at 12:03

Believed to originate from British military personel in Northern Island in the late 60's early 70's, as a derogatory term relating to people living in the Divvies flats area.

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    Please consider adding a reference (e.g. link) that supports your answer. – Drew Jun 20 '15 at 17:43

In the British TV series "Lovejoy", the antique dealer (Lovejoy) was called a divvy because of his intuitive recognition of valuable and genuine objects - based on "diviner".

I have lately discovered another possibility for the derivation of this word. It seems that in the mines around Newcastle there used to be an inferior type of safety lamp known as a divvy, a name which stuck to the users as only a divvy would risk going underground with one:-

Another word, divvie or divvy ("idiot"), seems to come from the Co-op dividend, or from the two Davy lamps (the more explosive Scotch Davy used in 1850, commission disapproved of its use in 1886 (inventor not known), nicknamed Scotch Davy probably given by miners after the Davy lamp was made perhaps by north east miners who used the Stephenson Lamp), and the later better designed Davy designed by Humphry Davy also called the Divvy.) As in a north east miner saying 'Marra, ye keep way from me if ye usin a divvy.' It seems the word divvie then translated to daft lad/lass. Perhaps coming from the fact one would be seen as foolish going down a mine with a Scotch Divvy when there are safer lamps available, like the Geordie, or the Davy. [Wikipedia entry on Geordie]

I don't know its origin but definitely remember using the word at schoolfrom 1958 on (south west London). A generally used term for someone who's a bit stupid/thick/etc.

  • That would put it more or less on the same timeline as "dip" in the US, with roughly the same meaning. – Hot Licks Nov 3 '15 at 12:44

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