"What is a Trope?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Trope? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Tekla Bude, Oregon State Associate Professor of Medieval Literatures

23 January 2023

If you found this video by searching for the meaning of the word “trope,” chances are you came across two very different definitions before you got here, and both of them are used in literary settings. The first defines trope as a catch-all term for figures of speech that say one thing while artfully and imaginatively implying another. We’ve explored a lot of these tropes in this very video series: words like metaphor, simile, allegory, synecdoche, and so forth. “Juliet is the sun!” says Romeo. This is a trope, specifically, it's a type of trope called a metaphor.

The other meaning of the word “trope” is a storytelling convention, device, or motif; specific tropes might be a characteristic of a particular genre of storytelling. For instance, one trope you see all over the place in folktales is “the rule of three” – where three characters or events create a predictable pattern (usually, two failures and a success). We might think of the Three Little Pigs, the magic lamp that grants three wishes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella and her two stepsisters, and so on. Or there might be character tropes, like the “manic pixie dream girl” – a quirky female character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." [Nathan Rabin, 2007] This stock character was pretty popular in the early 2000s, but garnered enough negative media attention that it became a cliche, and doesn’t tend to show up in media as often anymore unless it's being satirized.

Now, the first definition – the one that calls a trope a “figure of speech” – is the one you’re likely to find in writing books and websites, like the Silva Rhetoricae, an online encyclopedia of literary terms and figures; the second one – the one that defines it as a convention – is more likely to show up in spaces devoted to popular analysis of media, like TVTropes.com.

So, why these two definitions? And which one is the “real” one? Well, it depends on your perspective. The definition of “trope” as a “narrative convention” has its first attestation in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1975; that’s pretty recent. Meanwhile, the definition of “trope” as “a figure of speech” goes at least as far back as Aristotle, where the Greek τρόπος means turn, way, or manner: in essence, a turn of language. Tropes like metaphors and similes help us to express new ideas without needing new words – coming up with unique words for all of the ideas we have in a day would be impossible – and they also help us do it with artistry and imagination, like verbal thunder, shocking us out of our normal, everyday speech.

Not only are these two definitions both useful, they’re related, and they are a great example of semantic shift.  Semantic shift is when a word changes meaning or we change how it is used over time.

When Romeo asks “What light through yonder window breaks?” and then answers “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” he’s using a type of trope called a metaphor, which you can learn more about at the link in the description box. But this is a really boring metaphor; Romeo is, after all,  a teenager composing angsty teenage poetry about his crush. We’ve all been there.

And that’s how “trope” in the first sense became “trope” in the second sense. As figures of speech get used over and over and then become commonplace, they become less poetically powerful but perhaps more structurally important to our language and how we express our ideas, less an ornament of language and more how the language signals to its readers, viewers, or listeners that it is a specific genre or form.

The semantic shift between definition one of trope and definition two of trope also probably had something to do with the rise of a type of theory called structuralism and some pretty influential books that came out in the 20th century that looked at how the structure of language works, like Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916), Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004), but that’s beyond the scope of this video.

At any rate, both senses of the word “trope” are useful, and I think the semantic shift between a trope as “a turn of phrase that is beautiful and makes you think” to trope as “a narrative convention” reveals something about how we play with language – when we write, we’re always balancing the new and the familiar, the literal and the figurative.

I’ve only given a couple examples of tropes here. What are your favorite tropes? And what are your least favorite ones? Let us know in the comments section of the video!

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Bude, Tekla. "What is a Trope?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 23 Jan. 2023, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-trope-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms