This is the first meaning of the word derivative used as an adjective(Oxford):

1 (Typically of an artist or work of art) imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason[...]

This is seemingly the only use case where you have this negative connotation. One can trace the etymology of the word:

early 15c. (adj.); mid-15c. (n.), from Middle French dérivatif (15c.), from Late Latin derivat-, past participle stem of Latin derivare (see derive). Mathematical sense is from 1670s.

This is very much about things branching out/away, such as a river etc. Yet as late as the late 19th there doesn't seem to be any reference to this idea of disapproval nor to any negative undertone whatsoever(Century Dictionary, 1895):

Derived; taken or having proceeded from another or something preceeding; secondary: as, a derivative word; a derivative conveyance.[...]

Q. When does that idea appear in the English language? And in what context? A negative association with derivatists?

  • Artists can be described disapprovingly as derivative [of X other artist or artistic movement], or approvingly or neutrally as influenced by or in the school of [X other artist or movement]. I suspect that being considered derivative started to become a problem for Western artists when they began to lose the patronage of the Church and the aristocracy, which had both employed enough of them that being mediocre or unoriginal was not fatal to one's career; but independent artists have to please a fashion-conscious buying audience of private patrons with more demanding tastes and whims.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 4:22
  • @ErikKowal Thank you, at first I thought the meanings would vary depending if the adjective was used to describe a person vs. an object. Are you hinting that the connotation is stronger when the subject is a person? I wouldn't be surprised either if the patronage you describe would have had an influence. This is why I alluded to Darwin...
    – user98955
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 15:41
  • It seems likely that the concept of intellectual property — which in the first instance accompanied the growth in innovation and invention characterizing the Industrial Revolution and helped to consolidate the system of patents and trademarks — as well as the notion of the 'artist as hero' and visionary possessing unique insights or perspectives, which also grew widespread during the 19th century — reinforced each other in promoting individualism and the notion of unique talents. Today, the mystical blurbs often accompanying even mediocre artworks in commercial galleries are one manifestation.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:58
  • @ErikKowal Thank you. But please note that at law there is no negative connotation to a derivative work. Moreoever derivative works are protected by international instruments. A derivative work is unique - hence the protection. As you're somewhat hinting that could be nothing more than a consumer reaction to abundance or a misunderstanding of what copyright entails. A derivative work is not a "lesser work" at law, nor an objectionable or disapproved of type of work. The Berne Convention dates from the end of the 19th too. Thanks again!!
    – user98955
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 20:02
  • 1
    Indeed so. The legal definition of artwork as a 'derivative work' on the one hand, and the popular application on the other hand of the adjective 'derivative' to a work of art in the sense of 'unoriginal and/or clichéd' are separate, but they may still be confusing to those who don't understand the legal application of the term.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 20:18

1 Answer 1


As a first stab, I did a Google ngram on "derivative work". This phrase was virtually never used until about 1960. its usage shot up dramatically during the 1970's, and continued to increase since then (except in the mid '80s.) Typically, a new connotation begins with somebody mentioning it in print or voice, and others picking it up, until a momentum is achieved and eventually the connotation becomes commonplace, expected, almost embedded. It can be hard to pinpoint the originator, but if I were you I would search newspaper articles from the early 1970s, particularly book criticism and film reviews.
Often these trends are not spotted by lexicographers until decades later, if at all (some idioms and connotations fade or mutate before making it into any dictionary. Also, ngram tallies were not humanly feasible until quite recently.)

  • Thank you. I don't understand though why you anchored your search to derivative work - as such it's very much a legal construct in the 20th re: copyright and as such I don't get why searching it would prove insightful wrt the adjective per se. Searching purely for derivative in ngram yields an older timeline. Searching for derivative work may prove lawyers/business people have been busy in the 20th with this. Or are you hinting the negavity stems from legal touching this word?
    – user98955
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 15:36
  • Using only "derivative" picks up math & chemistry contexts as well as arts. You're probably right about legalese usage. You could try "derivative film" "derivative plot" "derivative novel" etc but reviewers/critics might not have used these words next to each other. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 3:58
  • Thank you. Yes, results of the standalone "derivative" would have to be curated to a high degree to be meaningful. Your answer is useful; in the end dots are connected from the comments to your answer; something happened in the 20th in relation to this. Religion, abudance, how copyright is understood etc. could be at play here. Maybe there is insufficient hindsight at this moment in time. I theorized before asking this that this connotation is affecting the perception of what a derivative work is. But I'm really curious as to when that exactly happened. Maybe time will tell.
    – user98955
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:42

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