Lexical Investigations: Diaspora

diaspora, country, Jewish diasporaThe history of the term diaspora shows how a word’s meaning can spread from a very specific sense to encompass much broader ones.

Diaspora first entered English in the late nineteenth century to describe the scattering of Jews after their captivity in Babylonia in the fifth century B.C.E. The term originates from the Greek diasporá, meaning “a dispersion or scattering,” found in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 25). While this specific historical sense is still used, especially in scholarly writing, modern-day definitions of the Jewish Diaspora (often with an initial capital letter) can refer to the displacement of Jews at other times during their history, especially after the Holocaust in the twentieth century. The term can also refer generally to Jews living today outside of Israel.

Diaspora also has been applied to the similar experiences of other peoples who have been forced from their homelands; for example, to the trans-Atlantic passage of Africans under the slave trade of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, which has been called the African Diaspora.

More recently, we find a scattering of the meaning of diaspora, which can now be used to refer not only to a group of people, but also to some aspect of their culture, as in “the global diaspora of American-style capitalism.”

Popular References
—“To the Diaspora”: A 1981 poem by African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Diaspora: A 1997 science fiction novel by Australian author Greg Egan.

Related Quotations

“In the rest of the diaspora, persecution gave the Jews no respite, but in Babylonia, under Persian rule, they lived for some centuries comparatively free from molestation.”
—Simon Dubnow and J. Friedlander, Jewish History (1903)

“[I]t became…misleading to see the American Jewish community as part of the diaspora at all. Jews in America felt themselves more American than Jews in Israel felt themselves Israeli.”
—Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (1998)

“The most traumatic, of course, was the African Diaspora, when entire nations, after enduring captivity and enslavement, were subjected to a perilous journey across the Atlantic to the Americas, where they were sold at auction and forced to labour on sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations.”
—Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003)

“That English has developed a number of varieties in its diaspora is also beyond debate.”
—Eli Hinkel, Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Volume 2 (2011)

Read our previous post about the word dogma.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.