Trend Watch

Kaine: 'Stop and Frisk...Polarizes'

Lookups spiked after Tim Kaine used 'polarize' in the vice-presidental debate.

During the vice presidential debate on October 4, Elaine Quijano asked both candidates about policing and race relations. Senator Tim Kaine’s response about community policing sent people to the dictionary, but not to look up community policing:

Donald Trump recently said we need to do more stop and frisk around the country. That would be a big mistake because it polarizes the relationship between the police and the community.

Polarize was the word that spiked after that comment, and remained high on our lookup list throughout the debate. Kaine used the word with its most common meaning—that is, to divide or introduce a separation into something.

Nowadays we think of polarization as ideological divisiveness, but it has a physical origin. When polarize first came into English in the early 1800s, it was used to refer to making something, and particularly light waves, vibrate in a particular pattern or in a particular direction:

Mr. Malus is still pursuing with success his inquiries concerning polarised light.
The Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, 1811

The Mr. Malus in question was looking at the properties of reflected and refracted light, and he noted that the direction of refracted light changed when the crystal he was using was reversed. Though Malus didn’t call this polarized, one of his colleagues did, and borrowed the French verb polariser to refer to the way the light changed direction.

The French word in turn came from the Latin word polaris. We borrowed polaris into English to refer to the Pole Stars, and adapted polar from polaris to refer to the geographic poles, and then to the two poles of attraction on a magnet.

If you’ve ever played with magnets, you know that when you place magnets with the same polarity near one another, they skitter off in opposite directions. This action, along with the earliest use to refer to a change in a light wave’s direction, gave rise to the meaning we’re familiar with: to split, to divide, to separate into opposite factions. It’s a word that seems to sum up the current political climate well.

*Trend Watch* tracks popular lookups to see what people are talking about. You can always see all Trend Watch articles here.

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