Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)


Every time someone misuses the word trope (which is approximately 99.999 percent of the time when it’s used on the Internet), I get ….really upset. Call it blind rage, call it a flash of insanity, but even though Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” immediately starts playing in my head, what I really want to do is subject said person to the same mutilations Al wants to subject to himself in his song “One More Minute.” I want to slam their laptops down on their knuckles so hard that their fingers start twitching like spastic hog-nose snakes, and then repeatedly whack them over their head with it while yelling “IDIOT! IDIOT!” in my best Norwegian death-metal voice.


In other words, I really don’t like it when it happens.


Settle down. It’s only a word.


Tell that to a biologist whenever someone mixes up genus and species, to an astronomer when someone confuses galaxy and solar system, or to a chemist when someone says atom when what they meant to say is molecule. For that matter, ask any scientist in any field not to get worked up when laypeople demonstrate they don’t know the difference between theory and hypothesis. To get excessively recursive, definitions are by definition an attempt  to provide an exact meaning for a word, term or phrase that will eliminate confusion in speech. The word trope has been very useful to people studying literature, language and rhetoric because until recently, it did stand for something very precise. You see, a trope isn’t just any recurring cliche, idiom, or motif; it’s one that helps turn a literal representation into a figurative one (hence its derivation from the Latin word meaning “to turn”), particularly (as outlined by Kenneth Burke) metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. It’s not a coincidence that the same people who have decided to make the word “trope” stand for any frequently recurring cultural object are those who continually confuse the words literally and figuratively, or who don’t care that Alanis Morissette popularized the misuse of the word ironic, because if it has a good beat and you can sing along with it so screechingly that you annoy everyone else in the coffee shop, who cares?


That’s right, I don’t care. The meaning of words always changes, and besides, the new definition is in the dictionary…


So what? The dictionary routinely includes the incorrect and improper definitions of words, or rather, the vulgar definition of a word.  Many dictionaries now regularly include a definition for “ain’t,” but that doesn’t make its usage acceptable either. And here’s something you don’t seem to realize: the continual incorrect use of the word trope popularized by a silly pop-culture website has not only sanctioned a new incorrect definition, but it has been stretched so far that it now almost means anything the speaker wants it to be. For instance, because the original use of the word meme by Richard Dawkins now has been co-opted to describe pictures of cats wielding machine guns and videos of people water-skiing into lifebuoys, people now use “trope” instead as a substitute.  I hate to say it, but Anita Sarkeesian seems to be one of the few people left who actually knows what the word “trope” means and how to use it, because her research is based on how certain imagery and characterizations in computer games allegedly carry with them a loaded, figurative meaning beyond their literal representation. (There, you forced me to say something nice about Anita Sarkeesian. Are you happy now?)


No. Tell us how to properly use the word, wise guy.


I will. First, to illustrate what a trope truly is, here’s a classic picture by Matisse.

As the writing says this is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. Likewise, this picture is not a trope, even though you’ve seen it repeatedly, and read countless references to it. But when does a pipe, or rather, the representation of a pipe become more than just a pipe, but an honest-to-goodness trope? Well, take a look at these photographs here:


I presume you already know who the first person is, but the other three are also renowned intellectual figures of the Twentieth Century. Yet even if you didn’t recognize their faces, , you probably said to yourself “hey, all those guys must be really smart because they’re smoking pipes.” That’s because the pipe itself has become a trope, an actual honest-to goodness trope, as it serves as a form of  visual metonymy, a defining characteristic establishing that someone is highly educated and/or who pursues intellectual inquiry, as well as a metaphor for intelligence itself. Most of the tobacco-addicted academics I know prefer cigarettes, and Sigmund Freud himself preferred cigars; it was in fact his response to the misuse of psychoanalysis “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” that inspired Matisse’s painting in the first place. Yet we still have in our mind the notion that academics prefer pipes, or the image in our head of Sigmund Freud smoking a pipe instead of a cigar, because a pipe has been rendered this particular figurative force. In two science fiction spoofs with cult followings, the big-budget Mars Attacks! and the lesser-known indie film Top of the Food Chain, the characters played respectively by Pierce Bronsnan and Campbell Scott are supposed to be parodies of the “Richard Carlson role” in the science fiction films of the Fifties. Even audience members who have never seen a movie of the era will instantly recognize that the characters are satirizing a certain antiquated image of the intellectual because they continually have oversized pipes in their mouths. The aforementioned Richard Carlson role is a just a cliche but the use of the pipe itself to identify the character as a cliche is a trope. See the difference?

But a pipe can be more than just one kind of trope. Who’s the first person who pops into your head when you hear the word “pipe?” Chances are, it’s Sherlock Holmes, because one of English literature’s most famous characters is associated with a number of a particular visual cues: a spyglass, an English deerstalker’s hat and of course, a corncob pipe. The pipe, the hat and the spyglass are all tropes, being examples of synecdoche, since they are all parts representing a whole, specific figure in our mind. It doesn’t matter that in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Holmes neither wore a deerstalker nor carried a spyglass, and that he not only usually smoked cigars or cigarettes, but when he did smoke from a pipe, they were cheap clay or cherrywood ones. All an actor has to do just stick a corncob pipe in his mouth along with one or more of the other accoutrements and presto!  We instantly recognize him as Sherlock Holmes.



Now lets move on to the proper use of the word trope in science fiction itself. H.G. Wells introduced in his novel War of the Worlds the new trope of the alien invasion story. Not the notion of an alien invasion itself; that’s a premise which over time has become a convention. What makes it a trope is that under Wells, the alien invasion became a metaphor, specifically an allegory for British imperialism. The trope of irony comes into play as well, since it’s Britain getting invaded by aliens instead of being the alien invaders themselves this time around, and it’s the the would-be colonists that wind up being felled by disease instead of the native peoples of Earth. We can now see how the notion of tropes, when used properly, are powerful objects because of how they work together to get a writer’s point across; in this case the use of irony helps to support the use of metaphor or allegory. Since then, there have been many variations of this particular alien invasion trope, most famously in the way alien invaders in Fifties science fiction films stood in for communism, but also consider how such works as Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” invert them by making us humans the malign invaders but retaining the allegory for Western colonialism (and you thought Avatar was so original). In the example of Fifties science fiction movies, the trope is modified while retaining the basic conventions of the alien invasion story originated by Wells, whereas in the Russell and LeGuin stories the premise is inverted (again, the use of irony as a trope)  while retaining the Wellsian trope of alien invasion as a stand-in for imperialism and colonialism. There are other cliches and motifs associated with the alien-invasion premise, but not all of them are tropes as well, since not all of them stand for anything else beyond their literal depiction.

Hold it. You said that the “Richard Carlson role” is just a cliche, but isn’t it a trope as well?

See, you are learning! As my own rhetoric professor, Bernard L. Brock (who introduced me to Burkean theory and the notion of tropes in the first place) was fond of saying, “yes and no.” The role itself is just a cliche or stereotype, but it’s the term “Richard Carlson role” that’s the trope, specifically yet another form of metonymy.  You simply need to say that “Hugh Marlowe (or Arthur Franz or Jeff Morrow or John Agar) has the Richard Carlson role” and fans of Fifties science fiction films will instantly know that the actor is not just playing the lead, but is playing the role of a heroic scientist. You can also say “Gloria Talbott in the Beverly Garland role,” “Marshall Thompson in the Kenneth Tobey role,” “Mara Corday in the Joan Weldon role,” “Whit Bissell in the Morris Ankrum role,” and so on, and this same community of fans will again instantly know what you’re talking about because a particular actor or actress is cast in a certain role that another performer has become associated with. It’s much the same way Trekkies used the term “Red Shirt” to define a walk-on role whose character doesn’t survive past the halfway mark in their first and only appearance on the show, and that term has since been used to denote other expendable bit parts, regardless of the color of their garments or regardless of the show they’re on. So if someone were to say that “the cast of Game of Thrones is made up entirely of Red Shirts,” you’d immediately grasp that they meant that every character on the show is expendable. It’s not the role that’s the trope, but the use of words to describe it, as they have moved beyond a character literally having a red shirt to figuratively having one (and they may be literally covered in red by the time the show is over, but that’s another matter altogether). Beyond the obvious, what additionally annoys me about the  TV Tropes website (yeah, I had to mention it by name eventually) is that the people who originated it may have indeed had at least an inkling of what the word “trope” really meant, and possibly had intended for people realize that the tropes were not the various recurring elements in popular culture themselves, but the usages of language to create an identifiable shorthand at recognizing them.

(And another pet peeve of mine I need to address. You may have scratched the side of your head when I mentioned the Richard Carlson role, but when I explained that it’s the role of the heroic scientist in Fifties science fiction film, you probably then slapped it in recognition and said “Oh! You meant the Russell Johnson role!” If you did, you really should punch yourself twice on both sides of your skull, because no, it is not what I meant at all. Russell Johnson was indeed a regular in the genre films of the decade, but he rarely played a scientist, and never played a lead! Instead, the “Russell Johnson role” denotes supporting parts as telephone linesmen, radio operators, and the like. Somehow, people got his movie roles mixed up with the character of The Professor he played on Gilligan’s Island).

OK, I think I get it now. But what do you expect us to say in place of “trope” instead?

There’s already an umbrella word for motifs, conventions and recurring themes and premises in fiction and rhetoric that don’t necessarily have a figurative meaning: it’s topos or in plural form, topoi.  What’s even more annoying about the misuse of the word “trope” is that there was an already-existing perfect term used to describe and classify literary and rhetorical devices, but now that word has also become practically useless in common conversation as the result of another word’s exaptation  to cover what it used to define.  So you see, when you misuse one word, there’s a domino effect on the rest of the vocabulary. Sure, topos and topoi are awkward-sounding words and it’s easy to forget which one is plural and which one is singular, but if you can master the English language with all its messiness, contradictions and already too many words as is, I’m certain you can get used to it.  Better yet, use the specific words to describe particular topoi, the ones you are undoubtedly all already familiar with: cliche, stereotype, archetype, convention, motif, idiom and even just plain old theme and premise.

There has to be more to this than just the misuse of the English language. Really now, why is it such a big deal?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, my degrees are in communication studies with a concentration in rhetoric, so I get very frustrated at poorly thought-out and uninformed attempts at armchair criticism. It’s gotten to the point that the continual overuse and misuse of the word “trope” means that outside of academic papers by people in the field, it’s a good indicator that the person using the word knows next to nothing about what they’re talking about. They apparently think if they just say the word “trope” repeatedly it will somehow make them look smarter and seem knowledgeable about the topic at hand. It doesn’t; it only drives home that you haven’t taken the time to properly research it and need to rely on buzzwords in order to puff yourself up.  In other words, it becomes just another form of sophistry. This particular misuse of the word has also encouraged a lazy and simple-minded approach to observing and studying culture. Just pointing at something and shouting “Trope!” does not constitute valid cultural criticism, yet that is what passes for it nowadays on the Internet. Worse yet, it has started to infect professional criticism as well, although in doing so, it helps one distinguish the good critics from the hacks. And that’s a shame, because the notion of tropes and topoi have been useful tools for many years in the study of literature and rhetoric, as well as in film and media studies. They help us to understand how genres originate and evolve, and how words and language serve as a means of persuasion and identification.

OK, I get it now. I won’t say something is a trope again unless I’m absolutely sure it actually is one.

Good. Don’t let me down.

Are you sure “The Russell Johnson Role” doesn’t constitute a true tro-








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