Discrimination has senses with neutral, positive, and negative connotations. On the one hand, it can refer to "the act (or power) of distinguishing" or to "good taste, refinement." These meanings, sometimes reinforced with modifiers (as in a fine or a nice discrimination ), stress an ability to perceive differences as an index of unusual intelligence. On the other hand, when the perception of difference is marked by invidious distinction or hostility, the word (often followed by against ) takes on very negative overtones, as in the senses "act of discriminating categorically rather than individually" ( discrimination against women, age discrimination ) and "a prejudiced outlook or course of action" (racial discrimination ). The original, neutral sense of discrimination , "the act of distinguishing," came into English by the early 17th century, followed by the positive one associated with superior discernment in the 18th century. Discrimination in the "prejudice" sense has been in use since the early 19th century, almost 200 years ago.
1640s, "the making of distinctions," from Late Latin discriminationem (nominative discriminatio ), noun of action from past participle stem of discriminare (see discriminate ). Especially in a prejudicial way, based on race, 1866, American English. Meaning "discernment" is from 1814. It especially annoys me when racists are accused of 'discrimination.' The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one 'race' to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination. [Christopher Hitchens]