April 06, 2006

Sister-girl diva-dom

Yesterday on NPR's News and Notes, Farai Chideya interviewed Cynthia McKinney (along with a couple of lawyers), and then discussed the interview with a group including Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle. Carr contibuted a linguistically innovative description of McKinney:

Chideya:   Jeff, I do want to drill down one last thing before we move on to other topics.
Why is this blanketing the media in a week filled with political news about
lobbyist Jack Abramoff, corruption scandals, Tom DeLay.
Why is this -- wall to wall?
Carr: Well, Cynthia McKinney is a very- very popular figure, she's a polarizing figure, she's got-
she's got that *it*,
and- if you want to call it diva-dom,
if you want to call it that- that sistergirl kind of nature
that makes her both popular, on one end,
and a target on the other, and that's why people are drawn to her personality.

I associate sistergirl (or sister girl or sister-girl) with the expression of African-American female solidarity that's on display in the lyrics of "Don't waste your time" by Denise Rich (from 1999, performed by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige):

Sister girl, sister girl
It's much deeper than what you're thinking
When something don't feel the same
Yeah you better believe his love has changed.

or in this passage from Patricia Smith's 1997 review in the Boston Globe of Jill Nelson's "Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman":

That very first line on the very first page of Jill Nelson's biting and bittersweet rant, "Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman," was enough to make me put down the book and squeeze my eyes shut in recognition of that feeling, that frustrating transparency, the searing solitude that accompanies the state of being black and female in this world. I waited for the chill to pass, picked up the book again, and smiled at the author's firm, assured, 'bout-to-lay-it-down countenance on the front of the jacket. "OK, sistergirl," I said aloud. "Let's talk."

So I guess "that sistergirl kind of nature" would be the kind of nature that evokes African-American female solidarity, or maybe general African-American solidarity from the female side.

I associate diva-dom with female star quality in pop music, as in this 1992 Billboard note:

Upbeat, electronic dance/popper should play well in shopping malls as well as nightclubs. Sugar-sweet female vocals are synthetically cool and detached. Slick production should help propel Modest Fok upward in the ranks of disco diva-dom.

or this 2001 Houston Chronicle review of the music at the Livestock Show and Rodeo:

Through their 40-year careers Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle have amassed six Grammys, two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a body of work that defined soul diva-dom.

Carr's frame "if you want to call it X, if you want to call it Y" seems to be a variant of the commoner "you could call it X, you could call it Y" -- "if you want to call it X [you could], if you want to call it Y [you coul]". This invites us to place McKinney's "it" somewhere between "diva-dom" and "that sistergirl kind of nature", a place where it's normal to swat a policeman who's bold enough to try to stop you from bypassing a metal detector. Whether or not you agree with Carr's admiring tone, you've got to admit that it's a vivid description.

[The passage from News and Notes also exemplifies the new use of "drill down" to mean something like "talk more about"; but that's a topic for another post.]

[Update: John Cowan, Language Log's non-resident copy editor, wrote to complain

What's with the hyphen in "diva-dom"?

Granted, the word is somewhat ad hoc, but -dom is productive these days (it apparently went through a period in the 18th century when it wasn't). Is it the Romance root with the Saxon suffix? But the same applies to chiefdom, dukedom, fiefdom, martyrdom, officialdom, and serfdom.

I was misled (or mizzled) into reading the word as "diva-dom[inatrix]", with a different stress pattern.

Well, I hesitated for a moment about this when I dashed off the post this morning. Google has 27,900 for "diva-dom" vs. 13,800 for "divadom"; and searching on LexisNexis and Proquest turned up a fair number of hits for "diva-dom" but none for "divadom", suggesting a collective decision by the world's copy-editors to go with the hyphen. Finally, whenever I see "divadom" I think of "diatom", which is unhelpful.

But John's logic is plausible, so I'll leave the hyphen out if I ever have occasion to use the word again.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2006 07:27 AM