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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | journalese | “temperamental person,” “impossible person”)

This word no doubt should have been covered last week with “drama queen,” but it will have to go in as a separate entry. The two terms have grown pretty close but are not identical. I can explicate the distinction, but not without observing that they seem to be drawing closer together and probably will be sloppy synonyms soon.

Formerly, “diva” (it comes from the Latin word for “goddess”) was a fairly narrow, specific term, whereas anyone can be a drama queen. A diva was more distinguished, more serious, and had real talent and command. Divas often acted up, but not for the sake of acting up, as a drama queen might. They were imposing, demanding, flamboyant, and histrionic, yes, but in the service of art, not selfishness (the two might always be confused, of course, in the mind of the artist). As far as I can tell from LexisNexis, the word was still used pretty narrowly to mean “well-known female opera singer” as late as 2000. When it wasn’t, it referred to a similarly well-known, redoubtable female singer or actor, as in “Hollywood diva” (Elizabeth Taylor, Lindsay Lohan) or “pop diva” (Madonna, Lady Gaga). Such uses remain common, but the strictures have loosened in the intervening decade: now women and gay men ruefully (or cheerfully) call themselves divas, meaning they are tempestuous and strong-willed. Perhaps it took on the wider application earlier in gay slang. “Diva” has lost a lot of its power in the switch and likely will lose more. Once it was an honorific; now it’s more like an attitude. A diva doesn’t have to be formidable any more. Any bitchy, difficult cuss might qualify.

The shift seems to have occurred after 2000, at least as far as the mainstream press is concerned. The honor probably goes to Martha Stewart, who, during her year of disgrace in 2004, was dubbed “the domestic diva,” and the phrase became a cliché (just a few days ago, the New York Post dusted it off in a story about Stewart). She was famous for being difficult, but also for having real ability and ambition. She was prepared to defend her high standards, which made her someone to be reckoned with. It also made her enemies and a dubious reputation. The phrase “domestic diva” soon became a way of taking a dig at Stewart, of gloating over her fall. Not that she was the only cultural force affecting our vocabulary, but Stewart’s travails do seem to have helped broaden our use of “diva.”

Another minor point about contemporary usage: “diva” turns up an unusually high percentage of the time in titles or epithets. That is, LexisNexis kicks up a lot of instances (when compared to the total number of instances of the word) of “diva” used as part of a title (especially movies and television shows), or a professional name (as of a wrestler, or a horse). The figurative use continues to gain ground, but for now, the older sense of the word, whether used literally (of Kiri Te Kanawa, say) or fancifully (“Drop Dead Diva“) still predominates.

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