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I came across the word tropical in a context which seemed nonsensical but, according to Merriam-Webster, the word can mean 'figurative' or 'metaphorical':

tropical:

...

2 : FIGURATIVE sense 2

...

an author given to high-flown tropical phrasings and convoluted symbology

Where figurative sense 2 is:

a : expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous : METAPHORICAL ...

b : characterized by figures of speech

Why is the word used in this way? Is there an etymological origin unrelated to the geographical sense?

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  • 1
    Showing that the word can be used figuratively does not mean the word means figurative. Used figuratively, maybe it suggests colorful or exotic, that's all. Jan 31, 2023 at 16:24
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    No, Yosef, it's actually giving 'figurative' as a synonym. News to me too. Jan 31, 2023 at 17:14
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    @EdwinAshworth: News to me too, but the full OED has an entire section titled II. Uses related to TROPE (noun). Within which is II-3: Relating to, involving, or of the nature of a trope or tropes (trope n. 1); metaphorical, figurative. For which the two most recent citations are dated 1984 and 2009. Unsurprisingly, they don't say it's "archaic"! Jan 31, 2023 at 18:10
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    @FF Two exceptions do not an 'archaic' classification break. Jan 31, 2023 at 19:24
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    Note the pronunciation: "for sense 2 ˈtrō-", like trope
    – wjandrea
    Feb 2, 2023 at 1:41

3 Answers 3

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OxfordL labels this meaning as archaic:

ARCHAIC
of or involving a trope; figurative.

So with this meaning, tropical is related to trope which means:

a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.

  • Both clothes and illness became tropes for new attitudes toward the self. (OxfordL)

Etymonline explains under tropic:

late 14c., "either of the two circles in the celestial sphere which describe the northernmost and southernmost points of the ecliptic," from Late Latin tropicus "of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "one of the tropics"), from Latin tropicus "pertaining to a turn," from Greek tropikos "of or pertaining to a turn or change; of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "the solstice," short for tropikos kyklos), from trope "a turning" (from PIE root *trep- "to turn").

The notion is of the point at which the sun "turns back" after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point in the sky. Extended 1520s to the corresponding latitudes on the earth's surface (23 degrees 28 minutes north and south); meaning "region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn" is from 1837.

It also says that in tropical is an extension of tropic.

As you can see, the idea of turn gave rise to two different meanings.

At this link from Ngram you will find past uses of tropical with the meaning of "metaphorical, figurative".

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  • 1
    Thank you. Now I also know that 'trope' means 'metaphor' as well as referring to a recurring theme.
    – zeno
    Jan 31, 2023 at 16:25
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    Certainly. Months ago, you also answered my last question, about the usage of 'now', within minutes, so thanks again!
    – zeno
    Jan 31, 2023 at 16:42
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    @zeno You should try to get your accounts merged. (And also register this account in the meantime so you don't lose access again!)
    – Laurel
    Feb 1, 2023 at 1:41
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    I would pronounce that trope-ical — with a long o. Feb 1, 2023 at 3:14
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    Please don't link to Google. Please link to the real source they have aggregated; if Google change their source, the link effectively breaks because it doesn't refer to Oxford any more.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 2, 2023 at 16:05
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As Tinfoil Hat observes in a comment beneath fev's answer, the key to the mysterious second definition of tropical lies in the word's pronunciation. Unfortunately, the treatment of word pronunciations is not a strength of Merriam-Webster Online. The only pronunciation of tropical that you can play back and listen to is the traditional one for definition 1. If you look carefully, you can see that the online page for tropical lists a different pronunciation for the first syllable of tropical when the word is used in the definition 2 sense—but MW's presentation isn't complete (only the first syllable is given, and there is no recording of how that version of the complete word sounds).

If you had instead consulted Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), you might have had a slightly better chance of noticing the pronunciation difference:

tropical \ for 1 'trä-pi-kəl, for 2 'trо̄- also 'trä-\ adj 1 a : of, relating to, occurring in, or suitable for use in the tropics <~ foests><a ~ disease> b : of, being, or or characteristic of a region or climate that is frost-free with temperatures high enough to support year-round plant growth given sufficient moisture <~ Florida> 2 {L tropicus, fr. Gk tropikos, fr. tropos trope} : FIGURATIVE 2 [defined elsewhere in the dictionary as "a: expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous : METAPHORICAL b : characterized by figures of speech"]

Better still is the treatment in the Seventh Collegiate (1963):

tropical adj 1 \ 'träp-i-kəl\ , a : of, located in, or used in the tropics b of a sign of the zodiac : beginning at one of the tropics 2 \ 'trо̄-pi-kəl, 'träp-i-\ {L tropicus, fr. Gk tropikos, fr. tropos trope} : FIGURATIVE, METAPHORICAL

A non-expert, encountering definition 2 of tropical in the Seventh Collegiate, would at least be on notice that something was odd about the pronunciation—a point easily lost in the Eleventh Collegiate and even more easily lost at MW Online.

But for a truly straightforward, comprehensible, and self-contained explanation of tropical as "figurative," I recommend the entry for tropical in the First Collegiate (1898):

Tropical a. 1. Of, pert[aining] to, or characteristic of, the tropics. 2. {From TROPE} Of the nature of a trope ; figurative ; metaphorical.

Ah, yes—Webster's [First] Collegiate Dictionary. Now there was a useful reference work!

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I think the “sense 2” is not quite literal…and if it was it would be for sense 2b. A better definition would be “flowerly” or more mundanely “embellished”.

Tropical speech would be said with flair and panache, written using fine calligraphy and overall be amazing, although probably not quite literally true.

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