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Word in the news: diva

Last week, music lovers learned of the untimely death of celebrated pop and R&B singer Whitney Houston. Blessed with extraordinary vocal talent and marred by tumultuous personal struggles, Whitney will be remembered all around the world as the ultimate diva. The news coverage of her passing uses language that never once allows us to overlook the multivalence of the word “diva”.

Dating back to 1883, diva appears in the OED as “a distinguished female singer, a prima donna.” Extending far beyond the original opera context, divas can be found in musical and performance genres from soul, pop, and disco to Hollywood and Bollywood. In the last 130 years, the word has acquired several more connotations and associations, and has even taken on metonymic qualities. One only has to say “diva” for greats like Aretha, Barbra, and yes, Whitney to come to mind.

Somehow, though, being classified a diva has become both praise and insult, where a sense like “a woman regarded as temperamental or haughty” sits comfortably next to its more musical definition. When we refer to someone like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey as a diva, we’re not only thinking about their impressive careers as performers, but also the negative attributes associated with this level of fame. Calling someone a diva is a fine line to walk and one that has vast semantic consequences.

The Oxford English Corpus  provides a wealth of collocations that help pinpoint how, linguistically, “diva” is used in positive and negative contexts. When the noun “diva” is modified by an adjective, overwhelmingly, the resulting noun phrase has a positive connotation:

Adjectives that typically precede the noun “diva”

true
famous
legendary
popular
favorite

Conversely, when “diva” takes the adjective role and modifies a noun, more often than not, the resulting noun phrases gear toward the negative:

Nouns that typically follow the adjectival use of “diva”

demand
attitude
reputation
antic
tantrum
tendency

These lines aren’t absolute, however. “Troubled diva” is a pretty common expression and one with a high frequency in the corpus. The same goes for “diva status,” which few could only hope to achieve. What we can learn from this corpus data, from Whitney, and from the way we choose to remember her is that divas are complex, often misunderstood, and resoundingly human.