Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan
If you’re like me, you loved things literary from an early age and paid close attention when the teacher spoke of such devices as metaphor and simile. Or alliteration. Even irony. All cool stuff. And the concepts moved right into your psyche.
Then one day someone threw you that slightly esoteric curve. Trope? Never heard of it.
Well, yes you have. The word comes from the Greek tropos, meaning “to turn or twist,” and it’s the umbrella term for all your favorite ways of twisting the meanings of words for effect. Plus a whole lot more that you’d recognize from literature.
Here are some definitions from wisegeek.org:
“A trope is a figure of speech in which words are used in a way that changes their meaning. Their use is common in a wide range of forms, including fiction, film, and poetry. … There are many … types of tropes and, when used well, they can be powerful tools.”
“Irony refers to a statement in which words are used to express the opposite of their conventional meaning. [as when] a “good time” getting a filling at the dentist [really means] a terrible time.
Metonymy refers to replacing a word or phrase in a statement with a concept that is closely related. … pens are associated with writers [so] Thomas Paine wrote that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” [meaning that] the power of words was greater than military power.”
“Synecdoche is related to metonymy. It involves referring to a whole by one of its parts [as when] a woman’s eyes [are poetically] used to evoke her entire body. Synecdoche can also work in reverse …’France recently enacted a new law’ [really means] “The French government enacted a new law.’”
“In antanaclasis, a word is repeated several times with differing meanings … often used in advertising, or to create puns. [As in] Benjamin Franklin’s quote, ‘We must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’”
There is one major risk with the more effective tropes: over-use to the point of cliché. But in particular cases the most effective can take on lives of their own as irreplaceable concepts.
Which brings me to the term that I’ve most often heard described as a trope … faster than light travel … and a final patch of fog:
Where and how does it fit into the formal definitions?
The answer, thanks to Edward M. Lerner, a science fiction author with his answer on tor.com, is that it doesn’t.
“In mainstream literature, a trope is a figure of speech: metaphor, simile, irony, or the like. Words used other than literally. In SF, a trope—at least as I understand the usage—is more: science used other than literally. Think of it as a willing-suspension-of-disbelief contract between author and reader.” –Edward M. Lerner
In other words, “you and I know it would take a hell of a lot longer to get there, but let’s get on with the story.”
Yeah. I’ll buy that.
Note: Budding critics, poets, and speech makers might also want to see the informative discussion on Grammar.About.com which separates tropes from figures of speech and describes some very useful forms here and here .
Or, if you’re concerned about brain health, this one suggests that Irony And Metaphor Are Good For You.
Franklin and Loose Lips: Wisegeek.org