What is the meaning of Prima Donna?
You may have heard an English word that sounds like “premadonna” or “pri Madonna” and thought of the pop star from the 1980s. But the phrase prima donna, sometimes spelled as primadonna without the space, arrived on the scene long before that particular prima donna singer. The original prima donna definition, using etymology and a thesaurus for American English and the English language prima donna, refers to another type of prima donna singer, one whose origins go all the way back to 19th-century Italy. Prima donna can be considered your new word of the day in your word list if you had not known its origins until now!
The Original Prima Donna Definition
The first prima donna definition came from the world of Italian opera. This prima donna meaning is a literal translation of the words “prima,” meaning first, and “donna,” meaning lady. The prima donna of an Italian opera is the operatic company’s best female singer. A prima donna singer is usually cast in lead roles. Traditionally, prime donne, the term for multiple prima donna, have been sopranos. The same leading roles for men would have been cast to primo uomini, which literally translates to first men. Primo uomini are usually tenors.
These prima donnas were the first ladies in their roles, and were seen as the leading ladies, like the principal female singer, for their time. Female operatic stars and opera singers could have been singular prima donnas or plural prima donnas depending on their roles. Prima ballerinas were also common in the origin time, as they also were part of a team in their performances and often had a lead. However, the distinguished female operatic singer is the most well known origin for the prima donna meaning and use.
A New Prima Donna Meaning
The new prima donna meaning is almost used as a synonym for acting like a diva, but this new meaning didn’t come into being overnight. It developed because of a trend. For years, prima donnas in opera companies had big personalities and attitudes when things didn’t go their way. These tempestuous singers tended to demand the very best. They had infamous tempers. Over time, the title prima donna became associated with that kind of selfish behavior. And so the new meaning of prima donna as we know it was born.
Now, a prima donna doesn't have to be a singer – though they can be. Famous singers like Mariah Carey are known for wanting everything they have to be the best. Some celebrities even have the fulfillment of certain wants and needs required in their contracts. But prima donnas don't even have to be famous. If your friend demands everyone buy him a certain type of candy for his birthday and he pouts when he doesn't get his way, he might be a prima donna. Madonna can be seen as a pri-Madonna as well, but the definition of prima donna came before her. This word play could also be a result of her stage name as ma don can be combined to make Madonna, with play on the prima donna phrase.
Are You a Prima Donna?
If someone has called you a prima donna, they may be saying that you’re difficult to work with. A temperamental person may also be called a prima donna. Don’t take it personally, but it may mean that you need to change your attitude. Prima donnas make every situation all about themselves. Going back to the term’s origin, if prima donnas are singers, they’re the ones who insist on all the solos. They demand their voices be heard above everyone else. Don’t be a prima donna. Learn to sing with the chorus, too.
Example sentences using “prima donna” could include: “ugh, you’re such a prima donna” or “stop being such a prima donna.” There are world lists that also go with the prima donna meaning, but prima donna is a term used a lot in American culture. People who have tantrums, are self-centered or have special treatment are normally referred to as prima donnas, even though the meaning does not go with the word origin.
The term prima donna comes from the Italian translation that means "first lady", and is typically used to describe soprano operatic singers that are over the top and have an attitude.
- Callas: Portrait of a Prima Donna; George Jellinek
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.