Long ago, in the bar of the Hotel Vesuvio in Naples, Italy, I interviewed the international vice overlord Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who had been freed from jail and deported in return for having the longshoremen's union protect the New York docks from Nazi sabotage. I asked how it felt to be identified always as international vice overlord, and he came back sarcastically with a title he preferred: "political football."
Stylists call a description that becomes closely associated with an individual a "bogus title." Thus, we have late-night talk-show host David Letterman; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling; and in case you've forgotten him, fugitive financier Robert Vesco.
New York Times editors frown on this lazy practice and instruct reporters to use an article in front of the apposite (syntactically equivalent) phrase, which preferably goes after what it apposes. The article the is used when the person is famous or infamous: "the real-estate tycoon Donald Trump" or "the international vice overlord Lucky Luciano." When the person is of little note, the article a will suffice: "Robert Vesco, a fugitive financier."
These days, one bogus title stands out from all the rest: "domestic diva Martha Stewart." Earliest use I can find is in a 1993 New York Times review of a Bridgehampton, New York, motel run by the "daughter of domestic diva Martha Stewart." Five years later, The Boston Globe wrote, "Domestic diva Martha Stewart showed President Clinton how to `do lunch' yesterday."
Though Stewart has sometimes been titled home-decorating queen, when she became embroiled in stock-trading charges, the alliterative bogus title took over. Fortune magazine noted "the domestic diva's legal crisis," and Business Week reported, "The embattled domestic diva laments her current situation."
Bogus titles are lapses into journalistic shorthand. I promise never to begin a memoir with "Seated in a Naples bar, political football Lucky Luciano complained ...."
Sing out the question: What has happened to the word diva?
Rooted in the Latin for "goddess," the Italian import is defined in Webster's New World as "a leading woman singer, especially in grand opera." The OED agrees, choosing "distinguished" for "leading" and adding an Italian synonym, "prima donna." Comes now the latest word from the lexies, in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster: "a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality (a fashion diva) especially a popular female singer (pop divas)."
You've come a long way, Lillie Langtry. In 1883, "the Jersey lily" (who was an actress, not a singer) was described by Harper's Magazine not only as "famously beautiful" but also as "the latest diva of the drama." Before that, in 1851, The Living Age magazine applied the Diva title, capitalized, to Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," who was a singer.
In its current vogue sense, diva, like prima donna, is still applied to women, but no longer only to singers. She can be a cultural diva, in the sense of "arbiter" or "exemplar," or a sports diva, like a member of the D.C. Divas of the National Women's Football Association. "Divas such as linebacker Tessa Nelson," wrote The Washington Post last month, "a 35-year-old grandmother from Baltimore and the team's leading tackler, are living their childhood dreams."