A few examples:

  1. A creationist and an evolutionist want to save an endangered bee species. The creationist remarks about how bees were 'created' to pollinate plants. The evolutionist no longer wants to work with the creationist.

  2. A man and woman are discussing how to promote equality between the sexes in the workplace. At some point, the woman complains about the 'manosphere'. This discourages the man from participating in the movement, he feels attacked by use of that term.

  3. A pro-life woman and a pro-choice woman want to help out single mothers. The pro-lifer says single mothers are people that didn't 'murder' their babies. The pro-choicer sees that as an accusation, since she supports abortion as an option.

In all the examples, the word in quotes divides the people, hindering the cause. What do we call those words? In each situation, neutral language could have been used, or the word wasn't necessary to describe the cause.

If my examples are offensive to anyone, please help me improve them.

  • 8
    "single-word-request" always seems to divide people here.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:22
  • It is very often impossible to find terminology which is "neutral" and not "offensive" to one side or the other.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:35
  • 2
    Hot-button words. But it is not the words that have that quality; it is the people who respond to them. A particular word may be a hot-button word for Person A but not for Person B or not for most people.
    – Drew
    Mar 28, 2015 at 1:31
  • I'd like to suggest that dividing people is a feature, not a bug. Any terminology whatsoever is designed to divide people into those who are in favor, and those who are opposed. The three examples you cite are all ones that divide two groups that might otherwise have been inclined to be allies. We can call that "unhelpful" divisiveness. I'd like to further suggest that, in some cases, the two groups will realize that their division is not fundamental, and devise wording that they can both live with. In other cases, they will realize that they were never natural allies to begin with. Mar 28, 2015 at 14:07

12 Answers 12


Within the specific contexts of these scenarios we might describe these words as controversial. Perhaps the individual words could be described more specifically as divisive. In each case, one person used divisive language which discouraged the other person from wanting to participate. I would argue that the words could be considered divisive because they are often in complete contrast (to the point of being offensive) to the other person's view.

divisive /dɪˈvʌɪsɪv/adj. — Oxford

Tending to cause disagreement or hostility between people: 'the highly divisive issue of abortion'

  • 4
    +1 for divisive. Accurate and fairly (not completely) neutral. Btw, welcome to the site. Also, love the username. :) Mar 27, 2015 at 22:44
  • This is exactly the word I thought of. By casting the problem in a way that other people who might otherwise wish to help feel that they would be abandoning their principles to do so, they divide the pool of people by irrelevant political position. Mar 28, 2015 at 0:17
  • 2
    Divisive language does not need to always have a negative connotation though. Sometimes divisive language is used to be hurtful, but it does not have to be used this way. The divisive word is often the word that represents the proverbial "line in the sand". Two people who stand on opposite sides of the line will always have one divisive point that they fundamentally cannot agree on. "Created" vs. "Evolved", these are divisive because they describe decidedly which side of the line you stand on (generally speaking). Mar 28, 2015 at 0:28

We've got some very good suggestions in the other answers, but I will put forth a few more that seem particularly appropriate:


: causing (people, opinions, etc.) to separate into opposing groups

(source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polarizing)


loaded (language)

Loaded words and phrases have strong emotional implications and involve strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning.

(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_language)

  • Good point. Perhaps not the right term for the OP, but it can easily happen that introducing a certain term can cause a polarization that didn't exist before.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 28, 2015 at 3:13
  • Sometimes it causes a polarization. More often, it reveals a polarization that was always there, but hidden. Mar 28, 2015 at 14:10
  • 1
    +1, "A word that describes [divisive language]" would be polarizing.
    – Mazura
    Mar 28, 2015 at 23:20
  • 'loaded' is also a suitable term in German language.
    – mike
    Mar 29, 2015 at 18:44

Here's two adjectives that may be useful for the contexts you've included.

contentious adjective: causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial. "a contentious issue"

synonyms: controversial, disputable, debatable, disputed, open to debate, vexed "a contentious issue" see, Google.com contentious

coloured adjective: 1.1. Imbued with an emotive or exaggerated quality: “highly coloured examples were used by both sides”. Oxford Dictionaries colored/coloured

  • 2
    +1 for contentious (in fact, I would split that into two answers so the two suggestions and be up- and down-voted separately)
    – IQAndreas
    Mar 27, 2015 at 22:40
  • 2
    @IQAndreas - thank you for the compliment and the good tactical advice. However, as a matter of form, I limit myself to but one answer per OP. This leaves more room for other voices. :-)
    – user98990
    Mar 27, 2015 at 22:48
  • +0 (+1 + -1) Yeah I also find it hard to vote when an answer is actually two answers. I respect your approach however I would suggest that you give more consideration to giving more than 1 answer as it may be easier and more usable for in the community at general. I prefer multiple answers, even if from the same person to answers that contain multiple answers within them :) Mar 29, 2015 at 12:45
  • 1
    "Colored" is itself a contentious word in the US, even when not referring to race. Mar 30, 2015 at 2:18
  • 1
    Nice suggestion with "contentious"!
    – Mike
    Mar 30, 2015 at 6:09

Issues like abortion and evolution are often described as Divisive.

I think in the context you describe it would be acceptable to describe the language tied to those issues as divisive.

If you want to describe a situation where a minority group or an individual is being excluded, rather than one where a group is divided into factions then you might use the word exclusionary.

  • 1
    +1 for divisive. Accurate and fairly (not completely) neutral. Mar 27, 2015 at 22:45
  • "divisive" is a great response to the OP's request and has, justifiably, been the answer with the most upvotes from the beginning. Dave Magner suggested "divisive" several minutes before the other answer, so you get my upvote, Dave, and your answer is deserving of many more.
    – user98990
    Mar 29, 2015 at 14:20
  • @LittleEva, good point. He'll get my vote too.
    – Mike
    Mar 30, 2015 at 6:09

Not a single word, but an expression I would use for this sort of situation is "His comments put a wedge between them."


In the examples you specified I'd consider the word partisan, especially in examples 1 and 3, where the language used is specifically designed to separate otherwise entirely compatible people based on a single issue.


You have some good answers here, but might I add "polemical"? It has the advantage of making you sound smart when you say it (or possibly pretentious, it could go either way depending on the audience).

po·lem·i·cal pəˈlemək(ə)l/ adjective: polemical

of, relating to, or involving strongly critical, controversial, or disputatious writing or speech.


Completely depending on the context, calling such words controversial can usually also be of help.

You generally want to go with divisive, but in the case of this word being brought up by large groups of people and/or in frequent occasion (e.g. female empowerment), controversial is generally also a strong word choice.

I would generally still use divisive, though.

  • 1
    Unfortunately, the term divisive has been suggested by two different users two hours before you posted your answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 28, 2015 at 7:54
  • @Mari-LouA I am perfectly aware of that :D I was just mentioning situations in which controversial may be a better word.
    – Zerium
    Mar 28, 2015 at 8:38
  • I get it, Think. You were "paying your respects" by recognizing "divisive" as a great term for this OP. +1, for that, and for "controversial", which is pretty good, too. That's a "toothy" smile you got there. ;-)
    – user98990
    Mar 29, 2015 at 13:54
  • 1
    @LittleEva Haha, thank you, I just believe that a wider choice of vocabulary can only be beneficial, hence why I created this quick note of a word I believe could be a useful substitute, in some cases.
    – Zerium
    Mar 30, 2015 at 6:09
  • But, of course, Think. "Controversial" is one of the synonyms of my "contentious" suggestion. That doesn't sound right! ;-)
    – user98990
    Mar 30, 2015 at 6:21

Schismatic (from the word schism, which refers to a divide) is applicable here, albeit not too common.


I'd call them discriminatory terms or language:

  • marked by or showing prejudice; biased.

  • characterized by or showing prejudice or partiality.


  • 1
    This isn't what the question is talking about. Mar 28, 2015 at 8:54
  • It is, usage of discriminatory language always divide people.
    – user66974
    Mar 28, 2015 at 18:22
  • 1
    Good word, bad definition. The one you were looking for was "capable of making fine distinctions".
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 28, 2015 at 18:32
  • 1
    @Josh61 No, polarising or divisive is much better. Discriminatory would imply intent on the speaker, but the speakers in these examples could say those words without expecting the result which happened. Mar 28, 2015 at 21:29



1 Showing or feeling active opposition or hostility toward someone or something:

Noun form: antagonism:

1797, from French antagonisme or directly from late Greek antagonisma, noun of action from antagonizesthai "to struggle against" (see antagonist).

1590s, from French antagoniste (16c.) or directly from Late Latin antagonista, from Greek antagonistes "competitor, opponent, rival," agent noun from antagonizesthai "to struggle against, oppose, be a rival," from anti- "against" (see anti-) + agonizesthai "to contend for a prize," from agon "contest" (see agony). Originally in battle or sport, extended 1620s to any sphere of human activity.


late 14c., "mental suffering" (especially that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane), from Old French agonie, agoine "anguish, terror, death agony" (14c.), and directly from Late Latin agonia, from Greek agonia "a (mental) struggle for victory," originally "a struggle for victory in the games," from agon "assembly for a contest," from agein "to lead" (see act (n.)). Sense of "extreme bodily suffering" first recorded c.1600.

These people have divergent struggles: the antagonism of the issue they disagree on is a barrier to collaboration in the struggle they agree on.

  • 3
    Much as I like the word antagonistic, I don't think it is appropriate here. One side isn't insulting the other side, they are defining a task in a way that makes the other side not wish to participate. Mar 28, 2015 at 0:15
  • 1
    Then again, using terms such as "murdering babies" is certainly intended to "antagonize." +1, Scot.
    – user98990
    Mar 29, 2015 at 14:05

I'd call this labeling people, assigning labels

Latino High School Graduation: Defying the Odds - Page 36 Harriett D. Romo - 1996

There is a substantial research literature demonstrating that the simple act of labeling people significantly affects their behavior.15 Students who are labeled "Gifted and Talented" are much more likely to behave accordingly;

  • 1
    This is not what the question is talking about. Mar 28, 2015 at 8:53

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