[DWJ] Tropes

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Wed Dec 6 18:33:26 EST 2006

Ika Willis wrote:
> I always get confused about this, and have stopped using both the word
> 'trope' and the word 'topos' as a result. My understanding is that
> 'trope', from the Greek word for 'turn', refers to a rhetorical figure
> whereby words 'turn' away from their literal meaning (so among the
> main tropes are metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor, and irony); 'topos',
> from the Greek for 'place', refers to a literary commonplace - for
> example, the 'storm topos' in epic (Homer did a good description of a
> storm, so Apollonius of Rhodes did one too, and then Vergil, so now if
> you write an epic you have to do a good storm to show that you're
> writing epic and/or to demonstrate your allegiance to/difference from
> your predecessors).
> But EVERYONE IN THE WORLD seems to use 'trope' to mean 'topos' now, so
> I've given up on both of them on the grounds that my definition and
> common usage seem to have parted ways for good.
> Love, Ika
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Or to put it another way, the meaning has changed. 

It's a common plaint of those who are careful about their choice of 
words: "this word's meaning has changed, so if I use it in the way I am 
familiar with I risk being misunderstood, but I can't bring myself to 
use it in the new way, so I will just avoid using it". There was a 
period when I avoided the word 'billion' for that reason; but now that 
the American sense (thousand million) has become so common that 
insisting on the former UK sense (million million) would be perverse, I 
have reconciled myself to using it.


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