The synonym of trope is defined as metaphor, but there seem to be some other implications when using the word trope that metaphor does not have.

Can anyone explain this simply and sensibly?


The word trope has shot to prominence in the last couple of decades...

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And as this article points out, "Trope is the New Meme", which I read in two ways. Use of the word itself has become a meme (pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture). But also, the meaning of the word has shifted for many people. To quote from that article...

trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype.

Or, as the excellent site tvtropes puts it...

tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.

I actually studied literature over 40 years ago, but I can't say I remember us using the word in the "typical" dictionary sense as given by OED...

A figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it; also, in casual use, a figure of speech; figurative language.

So far as I'm concerned, if someone wants to use it like that, I'm not going to argue with them or their dictionaries. But most current usages are more in line with my first two definitions above.

Here's how tvtropes knits the two definitions together...

Merriam-Webster gives a definition of "trope" as a "figure of speech." In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.

  • 6
    Surely you mean "as the black hole called tvtropes puts it..."!
    – Marthaª
    Dec 18 '12 at 0:41
  • vocabulary.com/dictionary/trope has many example usages of "trope" drawn from recent newspapers and articles. (see the right hand side bar on the page)
    – Pacerier
    Mar 10 '16 at 14:10
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    @Pacerier : I'm not impressed by the page you link to. I suppose I can't complain about the fact that their first "defining" example of a trope is Chicago's worker bees buzz around the streets - but per my answer above, that's an outdated sense that doesn't reflect the usage which has become wildly popular since the Internet. More to the point, the little "quiz" on the right-hand side of the page invites me to test my knowledge of the meaning with the multiple choice question trope means theory / figure / entry / opinion (none of which are suitable answers, imho). Mar 10 '16 at 14:24

It doesn't.
It's just another term for Metaphor, like myth, theory, meme, cultural value, or figure of speech.

Trope in particular comes from Latin, tropus 'a figure of speech',
from the Greek verb τρέπειν 'turn, direct, alter, change.'
Greek and Latin. That falutes really high.

So trope tends to be found in scholarly essays (especially about literature, where it's quite common as a term of art), and in the speech and writing of those who aspire to impress others with their vocabulary.

  • Hm, would that then be superfalutes or acrofalutes?
    – tchrist
    Dec 18 '12 at 1:31
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    Depends on how you measure falution. Dec 18 '12 at 2:01
  • @JohnLawler: Interesting catachresis, that highfalutin word you used (or is it just a neologism?). Nov 6 '13 at 1:25

Metaphor is only one kind of trope. Trope is any rhetorical technique that describes something in non-literal ways.

For example, metonymy is a technique where one word is replaced with a phrase that is related but is literally different, such as "the law" for police.

Synecdoche is using a part to describe the whole: "Can you give me a hand?".

Irony is the use of words with opposite meaning, such as saying "You're looking well." to someone who is clearly quite sick.

There are also some expressions that are not considered as fully fledged tropes but as sub-tropes.

Here are two websites to get started on tropes: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/S4B/sem07.html http://www.academia.edu/3793667/The_Fourth_Master_Trope

(The latter website may explain the information you have been given: "The late-twentieth-centurywidespread reduction to one master trope, metaphor, especially under the influence of Lakoff and Johnson (1980), is the most radical (and absurd) of these projects."

  • There are names for all of those and hundreds more besides, all quite vaguely defined, or distinguishable only in Greek. Naming things and promulgating a taxonomy, however hallowed, is not the same thing as actually distinguishing one from the other. What is the tests for a word and phrase that are "related but literally different", for instance? If you want to say "metaphor" is only one kind of XYZZY, that's OK with me. But then you need a term for XYZZY anyway. Nov 6 '13 at 3:47

Modern usage: overused plot device leading to cliched/predictable story lines. Some people will differentiate a bad trope from a good (ie a well used archetype), while others times calling a plot device a 'trope' automatically carries a negative connotation. My feeling based on general conversations with friends, is this use for trope has grown particularly quickly in Sci-Fi/pop culture/gaming circles. I like the other definitions listed relating to a wider variety of literary patterns coming under the banner of trope, however I am wondering if this more common modern use (trope as overused plot device) may overtake the wider meaning.


It is an over used theme or motif.

One author suggests that "tropes" are Hollywood's greatest asset. For example, Star Wars relies on the same trope as the one in Odyssey where the hero has to pass through trials and journeys in order to realize his true potential. This trope, no matter how much it is overused will still earn Hollywood millions if not billions. We can therefore argue that Disney deals in tropes.

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