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Mind your language

Why it’s time to abandon ‘trope’

A word that once had a clear English meaning is being overused to death with another one

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

11 February 2017

9:00 AM

A law I’d like to see passed would exact severe penalties for the use of the word trope. It is as welcome in our language as toxic particulates are in the air we breathe.

I saw a piece in the Guardian about a dramatic monologue called The Encounter offering ‘a recognised narrative trope: the white interloper introduced to a new way of being via an encounter with the other, the magical native’. Here trope seems to mean ‘a story in miniature, a recognisable theme’. The notion of a trope pops up all over the place these days. ‘How jazz ruins a young white man’s life,’ observed Caitlin Moran in the Times, ‘is quite a niche trope.’ She was making a little joke.


Yet, according to the researches of the Oxford English Dictionary, which revised its entry for trope in 2014, no one before 1975 used the word in this sense of ‘a significant or recurrent theme’. The meaning that English borrowed in the 16th century from Greek tropos was simply ‘metaphor’. Hamlet makes a laboured pun on the title of The Mousetrap, a play to be taken tropically — that is, as a metaphor. Trope in this established sense is still in use. I came across an amusing article in the Estonian journal Folklore called ‘The neutralisation of tropes in Armenian fairy tale narratives’. An example given is of crying a river, as Ella Fitzgerald used to put it. But we mustn’t be sidetracked.

I can’t help thinking that people who habitually use trope really mean topos. Now, if you look up topos in the OED hurriedly you might think it was coined in 1948 and then deployed by Northrop Frye in the Fifties. In fact it goes back to before Aristotle, who used topos to mean a general theme applicable to many a particular case. The Greek koinos topos
was rendered by the Romans as locus communis, which in English was expressed as common place. Developments in the meaning of common place gave us both a commonplace book of striking items and commonplace remarks that become mere platitudes. Today, a commonplace theme is given the pseudo-academic label of trope, but now, as Dante almost said, it is time to abandon trope.


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