History of tropes

sknox

Member and remember
Supporter
Joined
Mar 25, 2013
Messages
1,997
Location
Idaho
The recent thread on tropes done well caused me to wonder when this whole matter of spotting tropes and fretting over them began. I'm pretty sure John Bunyan wasn't worried about tropes. Nor, indeed, did Dickens. At a guess, I'd say 20th century, post-WWII, and coming out of the field of literary criticism, then hugely amplified by the Internet. Prior to the Net, it was probably just writers, agents, editors thinking about "originality" or a cliché.

I did some superficial research but found nothing helpful, except indirectly. For example, the Wikipedia article on tropes does a fine job of identifying the more traditional meaning of the word, but wrt the way we use it, it can only say, "he word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring or overused" literary devices.

Has come to be used. Gee, thanks. How and when it came to be used is the crux of my question. (there's a bit more on a reddit thread, but like everything with edit, the conversation wanders)
 
At a guess, I'd say 20th century, post-WWII, and coming out of the field of literary criticism, then hugely amplified by the Internet. Prior to the Net, it was probably just writers, agents, editors thinking about "originality" or a cliché.
That would be my guess, too -- probably very late C20th.

I did some superficial research but found nothing helpful, except indirectly. For example, the Wikipedia article on tropes does a fine job of identifying the more traditional meaning of the word, but wrt the way we use it, it can only say, "he word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring or overused" literary devices.
My hardback Oxford Dictionary of English just has the original definition of "a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression" and that's a second edition revised version of 2005, though it probably wasn't completely overhauled, so at least in 1998 when the first edition was printed the secondary meaning of what Collins (2010 copyright) calls "a common, often conventional, theme, motif, style etc" wasn't considered important enough to add to the definition.

I had at look at the etymology dictionary, too, and again that just deals with the original use of the word. It does have this to say about cliche, though:

Figurative extension to "trite phrase, worn-out expression" is first attested 1888, via the notion of the metal plate from which a print or design could be reproduced endlessly without variety, paralleling the sense evolution of stereotype. But this sense was not common in English until the 1920s, when it was identified as a French idiom.​

While stereotype itself, meaning "preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group" is recorded from 1922 (Walter Lippmann, "Public Opinion").
 
I would say late 20th century, perhaps around the start of the internet (and then amplified hugely in the last 10 years or so). I'd put it down partly to the internet and partly to the post-modern, ironic style of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scream, where characters are not only in a horror/fantasy/zombie etc story but understand how those stories work and what their main elements (tropes) are.
 
From etymonline:-

trope (n.)​

1530s, from Latin tropus "a figure of speech," from Greek tropos "a turn, direction, course, way; manner, fashion," in rhetoric, "turn or figure of speech," related to trope "a turning" and trepein "to turn," from PIE root *trep- "to turn." Technically, in rhetoric, "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" [OED], "as when we call a stupid fellow an ass, or a shrewd man a fox" [Century Dictionary].
 
I don't recall coming across the term "trope" before I came across the website TV Tropes in about 2008. I wouldn't mind betting that the widespread use of the term came from familiarity with this site, which is very popular with genre creators and fans. In particular I found this bit of the Wikipedia description of the site interesting:

"TV Tropes is a wiki website that collects and documents descriptions and examples of plot conventions and devices, which it refers to as tropes, within many creative works." (My bolding)

Why would the description need the bolded bit? Could be simply for clarity, but maybe the Wikipedia text was written about the same time the site was started (2004) and at the time the word "tropes" wasn't widely used.
 
Interestingly, the first use of "trope" I can find on Chrons is in November 2003 George R R Martin "The relationship between each child and his wolf explores the common fantasy trope". An interview with Carol Berg used it in March 2004, but then it's not seen again until October 2005, and there's only around a dozen or so uses of it over the following 3 years. That lack of use might be explained by the fact there were fewer writers here then, but I suspect also it just wasn't as fashionable.
 
We may not have had a succinct word for “trope” until recent times, but I think the cultural conversation about tropes and the concept of playing into or subverting tropes goes back centuries. The ”commedia dell arte” were made of stock characters in well-worn scenarios, played without a script. Basically an improvised theater of tropes. Then playwrights like Carlo Goldoni began “subverting“ the tropes by making the characters more three dimensional and their thoughts and actions more realistic and less rote.

Maybe it is a question of how much the author is controlling the work and telling the reader/audience an original story, vs. providing an entertaining framework which the reader/audience fills in on their own. Maybe authors who eschew tropes are not so much driving cultural change, but reacting to it; in times of cultural upheaval the author cannot trust that the audience will all bring the same assumptions to “fill in” what is not explicitly stated.
 
HB beat me to it. I too didn't hear of it until TVTropes got its start.

I also wouldn't be surprised if it has a history in fanfic as well.
 
>authors who eschew tropes are not so much driving cultural change, but reacting to it;
This hits exactly on why I instinctively draw back from "breaking with tropes" as a kind of authorial goal. I don't mean to criticize anyone here who has followed the path, but for me it feels too ... reactionary, in the pure sense of that word--for it to be something I myself would want to pursue.

WRT the etymology of the word, I'm aware of the older meanings. It's the newer connotation that interested me. I wonder, too, if this is not in part a phenomenon of mass communication, Internet-level. You need a large audience with shared experience for trope-yness to reverberate culturally. Then tropes become another incarnation of the fad--something that was once cool but is now to be scorned as tired (until, of course, it is resurrected as retro).
 
I used to see it used a lot—in the sense of a literary convention or often used device—back in the 90s on an online SFF forum (this was before the web so it was on a dial-up service) much frequented by US writers and editors, as well as die-hard fans.

I remember that I had never heard of the term before, and being a fairly new author surrounded by established professionals and therefore feeling my ignorance quite keenly (since everyone else there seemed to know it and use it freely) looked it up, only to find that the dictionary definition was in fact very different from the way it was being commonly used.
 
I used to see it used a lot—in the sense of a literary convention or often used device—back in the 90s on an online SFF forum (this was before the web so it was on a dial-up service) much frequented by US writers and editors, as well as die-hard fans.

I remember that I had never heard of the term before, and being a fairly new author surrounded by established professionals and therefore feeling my ignorance quite keenly (since everyone else there seemed to know it and use it freely) looked it up, only to find that the dictionary definition was in fact very different from the way it was being commonly used.

There have been a couple of moments in life when my entire understanding of the world was crushed and had to be re-built from rubble.

One was when I found out that duct tape could not be used on actual ducts. (According to published construction standards)
S-6519
air-ducts-iStock-625800460-2400x1600.jpg


One must use "Metalic Tape" which is a different thing indeed.

Another time was when I found out that English Language Dictionaries are not and are not intended to be an authority on the definition of words. Instead, dictionaries are a record of how words are commonly used at the moment, particularly how words are used in print.

We probably all remember when dictionaries decided to define Literally to mean "figuratively." Since the first public outcry, many dictionaries have moved into a more nuance definition, but here are some articles anyway.


And here Mirriam Webster makes a retroactive argument for the change in the printed definition -- So, they had been wrong for 100 years?

So, whatever English words mean, the English language has no official arbiter, and dictionaries are actively avoiding the role.
 
The recent thread on tropes done well caused me to wonder when this whole matter of spotting tropes and fretting over them began. I'm pretty sure John Bunyan wasn't worried about tropes. Nor, indeed, did Dickens. At a guess, I'd say 20th century, post-WWII, and coming out of the field of literary criticism, then hugely amplified by the Internet. Prior to the Net, it was probably just writers, agents, editors thinking about "originality" or a cliché.

I did some superficial research but found nothing helpful, except indirectly. For example, the Wikipedia article on tropes does a fine job of identifying the more traditional meaning of the word, but wrt the way we use it, it can only say, "he word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring or overused" literary devices.

Has come to be used. Gee, thanks. How and when it came to be used is the crux of my question. (there's a bit more on a reddit thread, but like everything with edit, the conversation wanders)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote his master's thesis at Cornell on "The shape of stories." Essentially all stories fit into one of 8 basic shapes or we might say tropes.

“I have tried to bring scientific thinking to literary criticism, and there has been very little gratitude for this,” Vonnegut joked during a lecture at Case Western Reserve University in 2004.

 

Similar threads


Back
Top