Printable Version
Pronunciation: trop Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Any figure of speech, a turn of phrase that uses words in a nonliteral metaphorical way. 2. A phrase introduced as simple decoration of a text. 3. (New) A motif, recurrent theme.

Notes: The meaning of the adjective for today's word, tropical, seems to have lost contact with its mother. Some dictionaries suggest it may still be used in the sense of tropical writing, but we do not recommend it. One adjective from this word, tropic, become the noun tropics, and the adjective tropical now belongs to it and it alone. When we call people dogs, rats, cows, pigs, and the like, we are using a kind of trope called a simile [sim--lee].

In Play: Because trope comes from the Greek word for "turn", I like to think of tropes as turns of phrases, maybe even twists: "I'm tired of political speeches filled with tropes and claptraps but lacking in specifics and practical proposals." Any time we "turn" a phrase to alter its literal meaning, we are resorting to a trope: "When you called your friend Gabriel your guardian angel, I thought you were just using a trope. I didn't realize he is imaginary and has wings!"

Word History: Today's is yet another Latin word come to English via French. Latin tropus "a figure of speech" was borrowed from Greek tropos "turn, direction" from trepein "to turn". Today's sense began with the Greek word in the sense of "a turn of phrase", to turn a phrase away from its original meaning. We see this root in other words borrowed in their literal (not tropic) sense such as heliotrope, a flower that turns to follow the sun (Greek helios). Phototropic plants turn to follow the light while hydrotropic roots grow toward a water source (Greek hydor "water"). An ancient master of tropes was the troubadour, a lyric poet in southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Troubadours took their name from an Old French relative of trope, trobar "to compose", before troubadours took to their feet to sing their compositions. (To say that our luck took a turn for the better when George Kovac suggested today's Good Word would be a trope but a true one.)

Dr. Goodword,

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