[DWJ] Tropes (was: trolling for ideas/suggestions)

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Wed Dec 6 19:05:11 EST 2006

Ika wrote sadly

>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).

I was trying to explain how "trope" is used by Clute and thus by extension
by most SF and fantasy critics, rather than how it might properly have been
defined in the first place.  I suspect the "new" usage of being the result
of back-formation, and having its origin in Sarraute's coinage "tropism"
having been somewhat misunderstood in translation, meself.

>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.

The definitions and uses of "trope", insofar as they are comprehensible at
all, seem to vary somewhat from book to book, writer to writer, in the
references on lit.crit. that I have in the house.  I think it's definite
Humpty-Dumpty, and the word must be taken to mean what any particular
writer wants it to mean for the time being, and I just hope they pay it
*lots* extra on Fridays when it comes round for its wage-packet (and take
the time to define their usage beforehand).

Such things are generally past praying for, like computer-terms that mean
something quite different from what that word used to mean in English, or
the confusion that now exists between "doubt" and "question" in the the
phrase "there is no doubt/question that...", which is made even more
confusing by "there is no doubt/question but that..." It used to be that
"there is no question that he is a liar" meant he wasn't a liar, "there is
no doubt that he is a liar" meant he was one; now, "there is no question
that he is a liar" seems to mean that he is one, and "there is no doubt
that he is a liar" isn't used any more.  Very strange.  I put it down to
"question" having more syllables and thus being obviously more "class" if
one is unsure about usage.

Avoiding the problem by simply not using either word or phrase is probably
the only safe way round it all.  The trouble is that the language is
smaller for this, and our choices are reduced each time a good and precise
word or phrase becomes an ambiguous one through misuse.


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