Jerome Shea       September 7, 2009      Weekend Wonk

I teach a course here at UNM in classical rhetorical tropes, have for years. But the first question I have to engage for my students—who are, after all, paying good money—is “What is a trope?” And it’s not just my students. Acquaintances both close and casual are curious about the term. And now word has reached me that my in-laws have asked their daughter exactly what it is that Jerome teaches. Well, that is rather too close to home for comfort, so I thought I would address the question right here in a wonk, once and for all.

It is, in fact, not an easy question. Historically the term has been used in many connections, and nowadays some new interests seem to have hijacked it. So let’s see what we can find out.

Etymology is always a good place to start. “Trope” comes from the Greek tropos (the verb is trepien), which means a turn. Perhaps you remember from your high school biology that sunflowers are heliotropic plants: they turn their blossoms throughout the day in order to keep them facing the sun, helios. (What you might not know is that “trophy” is related to “trope.” A trophy was originally a memorial—often of captured armor and weapons—to mark the spot where the battle had turned.) So far, so good. What I tell my students, to keep it as simple as possible, is that a trope—the kind we’ll be studying and using—is simply a turn of phrase, fancy things you can do with words. One of the fanciest tropes, for instance, is chiasmus, the “x figure.” Everyone knows the example from JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Hyperbaton, changing normal word order, is another: “With this ring I thee wed.” Anadiplosis, the repeating of a word for emphasis, is another: “We’re looking for a few good men, men who….” There are literally hundred of these tropes, discoveries and inventions that started with the Greeks and have been accumulating ever since.*

So those are tropes as I know them. But Webster’s Third (we haven’t space here to explore the encyclopedia entries) lists not just tropes as in rhetoric, but also tropes in music, as in Gregorian chant. Tropes also figured in medieval music as embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass (Webster’s Second tells us sternly that Pius V abolished the practice—a good story there, I’ll bet). A Jewish friend tells me that in Hebrew as read at services there are tropes, i.e., symbols in the text to tell you how that text is to be read aloud—tone and pitch indicators, as it were. And surely one of you is waving his hand frantically to tell me that “trope” has a meaning in mathematics, also: “a multiple or other geometric singularity reciprocal to a node.” Well, duh! We all knew that!

Actually I have no clue how this mathematical use of the term is related to the other uses. But as far as the musical or chanting applications are concerned, at a stretch I suppose one could argue that the idea of emphasis or embellishment ties them all together. Rhetorical tropes, after all, are persuasive devices, tools of argument, ways to—as a colleague just now reminded me—“turn” the other fellow’s mind in a new direction. Similarly, these tropes in music seem to be embellishments, ways to make the music more forceful, more persuasive. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Heck of a workout for one word. But over the last few years I have been running across another quite different and puzzling meaning. Sure enough, Merriam-Webster Online tell us that trope can now also mean “a common or overused theme or device: cliché.” In Junk Politics, the late Benjamin DeMott decried the themes, the tropes, that politicians now trot out ad nauseam: feeling the voters’ pain, narratives of humble people who have overcome adversity, change as good in itself, and so forth. A student has introduced me to a website dealing with tropes in fiction ( As nearly as I can figure out, these are mostly tried and true devices to move a plot along. The webmaster protests that these are not clichés, but he protests too much and I protest that they are not tropes. Call them themes, call them devices, call them the clichés that they are. Enough!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go teach tropes. Real ones.

*The best hard copy collection I know is Richard Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2e; a very comprehensive website is Gideon Burton’s Silva Rhetoricae (

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