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November 12th, 2003

Preventative or preventive / walkers but standees / diva

by Barbara Wallraff

M.P. Gleason, of Bangor, Maine, writes, “What’s your spin on ‘preventative,’ as in the popular ‘preventative maintenance’?”

I looked up “preventative” in seven major contemporary American dictionaries for you, and to my astonishment, all of them say mildly that it’s a variant of “preventive,” and none insists that “preventive” is better form. They just say or hint that “preventative” is less common. Stylebooks and usage manuals supply more definite answers to this kind of question, and most of these do recommend using “preventive” instead. The idea seems to be that since the two words mean the same thing, why waste a syllable? If there were a difference in meaning, I, for one, would want to keep them both. But I don’t see why our language needs two words competing with each other to do the identical job. Count me in favor of “preventive maintenance”—in both senses of this sentence.

Jerrod Mason, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes, “Throughout the Charlotte, N.C., airport there are signs above the moving sidewalks that read ‘Walkers keep left. Standees keep right.’ Somebody evidently made the decision that ‘standee’ sounds better than ‘stander’—and I halfway agree. But isn’t a ‘standee’ someone who is stood?”

You mean the way an “employee” is employed and a “detainee” is detained? But “attendees” aren’t attended and “conferees” aren’t conferred. The word ending “-ee” doesn’t behave as predictably as a person might hope. “Standee” is a word in good standing—and so is “walker.” If you want language to be tidy and sensible, I’m afraid you’ll have to give up on English and learn Esperanto.

Duane Butterfield, of Hiawatha, Iowa, writes, “I keep seeing and hearing the word ‘diva’ used for almost any woman in the entertainment industry. I believe this is incorrect. A ‘diva’ should be an opera singer or someone who is hard to get along with. Am I right?”

Well, “diva” used to mean pretty much what you say. My dictionaries from the 1940s through the 1990s say the word is a synonym for “prima donna.” And that term originally meant “a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization.” Principal singers being what they are, the meaning of “prima donna” expanded to include any “vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team.” (These definitions are from the current Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.) Your definition “someone who is hard to get along with” is well-put because men as well as women can be prima donnas in the negative sense.

But the meaning of “diva” has expanded too—in a different direction. Current dictionaries also give meanings for “diva” like “a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality.” So are Beyonce and Britney Spears divas? I can show you many dozens of newspaper and magazine articles that say they are. This leaves us with the question of what to call the marvelous opera singers Maria Callas and Kiri Te Kanawa. Maybe we should just call them that?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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