For a term as loaded with political meaning as “affirmative action,” it might come as a surprise to learn that its origins on the political landscape still remain somewhat of a mystery. Merriam-Webster places its first known use in 1965, but the historical record shows it being used years before.
Though education is largely the focus of today’s affirmative action debate, the origin of the term is rooted with legalese in employment law, explains Shirley J. Wilcher, the executive director for the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. To take an "affirmative action" was to literally act affirmatively—not allowing events to run their course but rather having the government (or employers) take an active role in treating employees fairly.
Read the full Smithsonian story here.