"Polarizes" is not the right word for this. If you can imagine a group of people being strictly divided in opinion, the ideological line which divided them would be the thing I am trying to generically name. I'm looking for a specific word that I know I've seen before but can't remember. I've googled this but have not been able to find the right word. This is the best definition I can provide.

An (poor) example is how a stance on taxes divides people into Democrats and Republicans

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    You should write a sample sentence containing a blank ( ____ ) where the word you are looking for would fit. In the UK, as you know, there was a recent referendum and the two sides were divided into Leaves / Leavers and Remains / remainers. I also believe your question has been asked before, and not too long ago. Have you searched using the searchbox?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 12, 2016 at 6:43
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    Related: “Polarized” or “polarizing” opinions? P.S That isn't the recent question I mentioned previously. You also need to add the "single-word-request" tag in your question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 12, 2016 at 6:46
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    polarizing seems perfect to me: it means that everyone is pushed to one extreme or the other by it. Jul 12, 2016 at 8:06
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    I'm still not quite sure what exactly you're asking for. The title says "word for an opinion", while in the body of the question you ask for a word for "the ideological line which divided them". Is it the issue you want the word to describe (in which case "polarising" seems best), or does the word describe something else? Jul 12, 2016 at 8:47
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    Adding to @Chappo's comment, you need to write an example sentence where the word would be used. You are not even telling us whether you need a noun or adjective. The following is the strict rule of this community. Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. For help writing a good word or phrase request, see: About single word requests. Please edit your question accordingly.
    – user140086
    Jul 12, 2016 at 8:59

14 Answers 14


Perhaps the word you are looking for is shibboleth:

a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.

(from the Oxford Dictionaries web site). The word means "ear of corn" in Hebrew; it was considered difficult for foreigners to pronounce properly, so the Gileadites used it to detect Ephraimite refugees and slay them. See Judges Chapter 12 for the full story.

  • That's the word I would use. A shibboleth is meant, by definition to divide (usually "us" and "them"). Jul 12, 2016 at 22:14
  • Good answer. I don't understand the downvotes. You even provided a cited reference to go along with your explanation. Even if this is not the answer OP was looking for, it's at least as good as several of the other answers here. Moreover, I feel all the answers should be given some slack given how much confusion there was (and to me, still is) over what exactly the OP is asking.
    – John Y
    Jul 13, 2016 at 0:22
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    Though I like the word shibboleth, I believe it marks a distinction of a group against another, and Over time the word has also evolved to signify an old belief or saying that is repetitively cited but untrue. To me it lacks the "symmetry" asked in the OP: "the ideological line which divided them" Jul 14, 2016 at 6:57
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    I agree with @LaurentDuval. For example, immigration is a divisive or cleaving or contentious or bellwether or wedge issue, or a fault line, or an issue that partitions, segments, segregates or creates a schism, but in my mind it definitely isn't a shibboleth using its modern connotation. It's a downvote from me. Jul 14, 2016 at 7:59
  • nothing to do with opinion, though.
    – njzk2
    Jul 14, 2016 at 15:23

If you are looking for an adjective I think you may use divisive:

  • causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups.



A wedge issue is one which actively (as opposed to passively) divides people into polarized groups. A typical one in American politics is abortion, another is gun control.

A wedge issue is a political or social issue, often of a controversial or divisive nature, which splits apart a demographic or population group.

  • Along the same lines would be a 'hot-button issue'.
    – Thomas
    Jul 13, 2016 at 9:37
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    @Thomas - Most (maybe all) wedge issues are also hot button issues, but the term "hot button" just implies one that causes strong emotions, whereas the term "wedge" carries a vivid metaphorical implication of pushing two groups apart. Jul 14, 2016 at 16:01
  • Thank you for the clarification (+1). Would you say that a wedge issue tends to have two clearly defined sides, while I hot-button issue may draw a wide variety of reactions?
    – Thomas
    Jul 14, 2016 at 19:39
  • @Thomas Yes, that's also a good distinction. A wedge issue is binary, it's specifically used to separate people. It's more a matter of usage than of the actual traits of the issue. You use a wedge issue when you want to force people to choose sides. Jul 14, 2016 at 19:51

If you are looking for a noun for the division (besides division), perhaps you are thinking of schism? Google defines it as

a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.

At one time it applied more specifically to divisions within a church, and that's still sometimes the first definition in dictionaries1, but I think Google's definition captures a fairly common popular usage. The implication of a very deep division based on an ideological difference of opinion would seem to suit your question.

Usefully, according to the OED this noun has already been verbed:

Obs. rare. intr. To separate schismatically.

1604 H. Jacob Reasons 77 He that differeth from the Gospell ioyneth not to the Church, but schismeth from it.

And there is also the much more common adjective, schismatic.

Thus you could say something like

The schism between Republicans and Democrats over taxation seems unlikely to resolve anytime soon.


Congress has schismed over the issue of taxation.


The schismatic issue of taxation is polarizing voters.

  1. The OED Online actually first lists an older, biblical sense of "a (metaphorical) rent or cleft."
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    This may be a UK/US thing, or perhaps just personal, but I would only use this word in your second example, perhaps at a push your third, but never the first. I think there's an implication that the group was previously united and then the dividing issue caused them to split.
    – Jules
    Jul 14, 2016 at 1:50

I'm not 100% sure of what you want but if none of the above answers fit, what you might want is "litmus test" in the following senses:

From Merriam-Webster: a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive

Or: From Wikipedia: a question asked of a potential candidate for high office, the answer to which would determine whether the nominating official would proceed with the appointment or nomination.

It is, of course, used as an analogy to the litmus test in chemistry to describe a question or issue that divides people into two camps.


Common words to describe a "an opinion on a subject which, by definition, divides a group of people", would simply be controversial or confrontational.

If not, I take the description to mean they are entrenched in their positions, so that 'idealogical' line might reference their impasse. There's a 'line in the sand' so to speak.

You said you couldn't use it in a sentence, so I'm trying to think of different ways to describe these groups, their 'demarcation' (as above), or a description of their incongruent positions.

His opinion on the matter was controversial.
These two groups of people would be at an impasse.
Their idealogies are incongruent.
They might be two disparate groups.


An ideological fault line is often used to describe a gap in politics between two groups. For instance:

The ideological fault line between Republicans and Democrats often comes down to whether they feel income redistribution by tax is just.

The word bellwether is often used to describe an issue that is useful for disambiguation of whether an individual or group is on one side a fault line or another, and need not be directly related.

"Love of travel is a bellwether of whether someone will vote Republican or Democratic." Abe asserted, perhaps jokingly. "But then again, existence of toenail fungus is also a political bellwether."

Used in aggregate, to map one trait of a group to another:

High unemployment is a bellwether that a group will vote a Libertarian into office.

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    You are trying to explain a word. The sentence should use the word in a way that helps the reader to understand the word, especially because you are not using a reference. Would you say "toenail fungus is a bellweather of whether someone will vote R or D"? I would like to upvote your answer, because you have picked a good phrase and a good word, but this travel example sentence is nonsense.
    – ab2
    Jul 12, 2016 at 20:18
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    @ab2 Please reference a meta post indicating that example sentences must be true, and link to an authority capable of ascertaining the correctness of a given example. Jul 12, 2016 at 20:22
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    It's your answer. I was trying to be helpful. I am not convinced that whatever pro/anti travel bias Rs/Ds have is strong enough to be a bellweather. Toe fungus might be just as good.
    – ab2
    Jul 12, 2016 at 20:49
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    @NathanielFord, I thought ab2's comment was constructive. I would say that an example sentence for a word or phrase should remove as much ambiguity from the rest of the line as possible to highlight the effect of that word or phrase. That most people don't immediately associate travel with a political position blurs the effect of bellwether's role. Consider your definition of bellwether as well, which is a bit inaccurate. It doesn't just describe issues, it doesn't disambiguate or define positions, and may very well be unrelated as you said. You have an extra a as well.
    – John
    Jul 13, 2016 at 15:03
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    @NathanielFord, all uses of bellwether (no a), are technically accurate if the speaker thinks it is. When I get out of bed on the left, my check engine light is on. "[...] left side is a bellwether for my engine light being on". This is completely true, but doesn't help a person who doesn't know the word. I was referring to ab2's comment about improving your example, which was colorful and fun, but examples should be clear first, fun second. Bellwether's only (metaphorical) purpose is to convey a trend (unintuitive or not). I think using a trend that is clear would be more helpful.
    – John
    Jul 13, 2016 at 15:38

Demarcation as a noun, and demarcate or demark as a transitive verb come to mind.

demarcate: to delimit or set apart (Merriam Webster), or ~1.1 to separate or distinguish from (OED)

demark: another term for demarcation.(OED)

demarcation, ~1.1 a dividing line (OED)

So, for example, you could say something like "Republicans and Democrats are strongly demarked by their attitudes towards taxation" or perhaps "Attitudes towards gun control form a strong demarcation between different segments of society".

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    I think demarcated is less awkward and used more often than demarked. "The wall demarcated the border with Canada." Jul 12, 2016 at 20:32

Many of the other answers would fit the question -- but if you're looking to describe an issue so polarizing & divisive that it would cause an argument or fight, I'd go with contentious.


A cleavage or a cleaving issue: New Yorker cover shows Donald Trump cleaving the GOP elephant. Cleavage (MW):

a division between two things or groups

In political science:

cleavage is the division of voters into voting blocs

In cross-cutting cleavage one finds:

"Cleavages" include such things as racial, political, religious divisions in society

Here are some uses in context:

  • Failure of U. S. Tax Policy: Revenue and Politics, Sheldon D. Pollack: Differences over tax policy simply reflect the dominant partisan cleavage of the day
  • Quizzlet: Which of the following is NOT a source of cleavage in public opinion? a. race; b. region; c. the family; d. ethnicity; e. class.
  • Races Where Spending Bill Vote Could Be an Issue But rather than cleaving along partisan lines, Democrats and Republicans — incumbents and challengers alike — came down on both sides of the issue depending on their states and districts, suggesting national party committees aren't likely to take up the vote in their national messaging

Using your example “A stance on taxes divides people into Democrats and Republicans”, of the few verbs that come to mind (partition, segment, and segregate), segregate seems best:

A [particular] stance on taxes segregates people into Democrats and Republicans.


Based on the question, it seems likely that you are looking for a nounal (or potentially adjectival) form to describe the kind of thought, idea, or view that would divide or distinguish people. For that, the word distinctive seems appropriate: e.g. …

Among historic Calvinists and Puritans, the doctrine of the exclusive baptism of believers (and that by immersion) is a Baptist distinctive.

See also examples of pages that outline doctrinal differences calling them “distinctives”: Presbyterian Distinctives, Historic Baptist Distinctives.


You're asking for a verb that would mean "to divide based on opinion," but what you should be looking at is adjectives to describe a verb, since we don't really have a word for that.

An opinion(noun) can be polarising. ("can be polarising" is the verb phrase here.) Maybe the opinion that was expressed in Carl's speach divided the people. ("divided" is the verb which the subject "opinion" does to the object "people")

"He gave a polarising speach." speach is a noun in this past-tense descriptor.

  • There is no such thing as an "adjective to describe a verb". Did you mean to say 'adverb'?
    – Thomas
    Jul 13, 2016 at 21:20
  • I see nothing in the question (or even any of its earlier versions) that asks for a verb. It seems, in fact, to be asking for a noun, or perhaps an adjective that could be applied to a noun, to describe the issue that causes the polarisation
    – Jules
    Jul 14, 2016 at 1:57
  • Two other issues of concern here, in addition to @Jules's point. (1) Your post seems like a speech (spelling: not "speach") on how to write in English, with a lesson on grammar thrown in. I've read it through twice, and I can't see where you've attempted to answer the actual question. (2) "You note that "the point of language is not to seem overly sophisticated", but you use terms like "past-tense descriptor", "arguendo" and "recondite". You're not lampooning us, are you? :-) Jul 14, 2016 at 7:28

It sounds like you are looking for the word issue: whether taxes should be equally applied to rich and poor, or scaled, is the issue that divides Democrats and Republicans.

  • An issue is not something that divides a group in two, necessarily. It could keep them as one, or split them into several groups. Jul 14, 2016 at 13:57
  • True enough. But the OP did not say "divides in two"; and even a shibboleth, apparently the word e was seeking, can more than bifurcate. The issue that keeps a group as one may keep others, for various reasons, from joining the group. In the US Civil War, people fought -- and were thus divided into two -- due to various issues.
    – shipr
    Jul 14, 2016 at 14:28
  • However, as I said, an issue can unite as well as divide. It does not, by definition, divide people. It's not a suitable answer. Jul 14, 2016 at 14:30
  • Okay. You're right: it does not strictly divide.
    – shipr
    Jul 14, 2016 at 14:34

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