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See also: -trope




A US Federal Art Project (1936–1939) poster showing Little Red Riding Hood and a wolf, with the caption “once upon a time”. That phrase, which appears in the introduction of many traditional fairy tales, can be regarded as a trope (noun sense 1)

From Latin tropus, from Ancient Greek τρόπος (trópos, a manner, style, turn, way; a trope or figure of speech; a mode in music; a mode or mood in logic), related to τροπή (tropḗ, solstice; trope; turn) and τρέπειν (trépein, to turn). The verb is derived from the noun.



trope (plural tropes)

  1. (art, literature) Something recurring across a genre or type of art or literature, such as the ‘mad scientist’ of horror movies or the use of the phrase ‘once upon a time’ as an introduction to fairy tales; a motif.
    • 1776, George Campbell, “Of Wit, Humour, and Ridicule”, in The Philosophy of Rhetoric. [...] In Two Volumes, volume I, London: Printed for W[illiam] Strahan; and T[homas] Cadell, in the Strand; and W[illiam] Creech at Edinburgh, OCLC 224614777, book I (The Nature and Foundations of Eloquence), pages 65–66:
      It is likewiſe witty, for [] a trope familiar to this author, you have here a compariſon of—a woman's chaſtity to a piece of porcelain,—her honour to a gaudy robe,—her prayers to a fantaſtical diſguiſe,—her heart to a trinket; and all theſe together to her lap-dog, and that founded on one lucky circumſtance (a malicious critic would perhaps diſcern or imagine more) by which theſe things, how unlike ſoever in other reſpects, may be compared, the impreſſion they make on the mind of a fine lady.
    • 2017 February 23, Katie Rife, “The Girl With All The Gifts tries to put a fresh spin on overripe zombie clichés”, in The A.V. Club[1]:
      You have to give director Colm McCarthy, a Scottish TV veteran making his feature film debut, and writer Mike Carey, adapting his own novel, credit for attempting the seemingly impossible task of doing something new with the zombie subgenre. And by blending it with the common YA [young adult] trope of a young female protagonist who leads the world into a new revolutionary era, they almost get there—largely thanks to newcomer [Sennia] Nanua, who presents her character's grappling with complex themes of identity and original sin with a childlike guilelessness.
  2. (rhetoric) A figure of speech in which words or phrases are used with a nonliteral or figurative meaning, such as a metaphor.
    • 1765, Francis Bacon, “The First Book of Francis Bacon: Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human”, in The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England. In Five Volumes, volume I, London: Printed for A[ndrew] Millar, in the Strand, OCLC 505271389, pages 14–15:
      [T]hese four cauſes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the ſchoolmen, the exact ſtudy of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affected ſtudy of eloquoence, and copia of ſpeech, which then began to flouriſh. This grew ſpeedily to an exceſs; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceneſs of the phraſe, and the round and clean compoſition of the ſentence, and the ſweet falling of the clauſes, and the varying and illuſtration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of ſubject, ſoundneſs of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.
    • 1870, Thomas W[atkins] Powell, “Of Law in General”, in Analysis of American Law, Philadelphia, Pa.: J. B. Lippincott & Co., OCLC 5532801; republished Clark, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange, 2008, ISBN 978-1-58477-866-0, page 33:
      Law is the rule of human conduct. When this term is applied in reference to the governing principles of all actions, inanimate as well as animate, and arising from impulse or necessity, as well as from volition, it is used figuratively, as a trope, rather than in its true and literal signification—as when we say, the laws of motion, the laws of gravitation, the laws of vegetable or animal life.
  3. (geometry) Mathematical senses.
    1. A tangent space meeting a quartic surface in a conic.
      • 1905, R[onald] W[illiam] H[enry] T[urnbull] Hudson, “The Quartic Surface”, in Kummer’s Quartic Surface, Cambridge: At the University Press, OCLC 318372861; republished Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-521-39790-2, page 15:
        Hence the section must be a conic passing through six nodes, that is, the plane touches the surface all along a conic, and is therefore a trope. The complete section of the surface by a trope is a conic counted twice; since this passes through six nodes, the trope must touch the six quadric tangent cones along generators which are tangents to the singular conic.
    2. (archaic) The reciprocal of a node on a surface.
      • 1868 November 12, [Arthur] Cayley, “VI. A Memoir on the Theory of Reciprocal Surfaces”, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 159, part I, London: Printed by Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, published 1869, OCLC 715761850, page 202:
        I take account of conical and biplanar nodes, or, as I call them, cnicnodes, and binodes; of pinch-points on the nodal curve; and of close-points and off-points on the cuspidal curve: viz. I assume that there are /  , cnicnodes, /  , binodes, /  , pinch-points, /  , close points, /  , off-points, / deferring for the present the explanation of these singularities. The same letters, accented, refer to the reciprocal singularities. Or using "trope" as the reciprocal term to node, these will be /  , cnictropes, /  , bitropes, /  , pinch-planes, /  , close-planes, /  , off-planes; / but these present themselves, not in the equations above referred to, but in the reciprocal equations.
  4. (music) Musical senses.
    1. A short cadence at the end of the melody in some early music.
      • 1765, Francis Bacon, “The Second Book of Francis Bacon: Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human”, in The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and Lord High Chancellor of England. In Five Volumes, volume I, London: Printed for A[ndrew] Millar, in the Strand, OCLC 505271389, page 53:
        Is not the trope of muſic, to avoid or ſlide from the cloſe or cadence, common with the trope of rhetoric, of deceiving expectation? Is not the delight of the quavering upon a ſtop in muſic, the ſame with the playing of light upon the water?
      • 1983, John G. Johnstone, “Beyond a Chant: ‘Tui sunt caeli’ and Its Tropes”, in Studies in the History of Music, volume 1 (Music and Language), New York, N.Y.: Broude Brothers, ISBN 978-0-8450-7401-5, pages 24–37; reprinted in Alejandro Enrique Planchart, editor, Embellishing the Liturgy: Tropes and Polyphony, Abingdon, Oxon.; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2016, ISBN 978-0-7546-2764-7, page 138:
        If the antiphon comes to an end with the “Praeparatio” trope, a musical difficulty is presented by the trope’s cadence. Although the antiphon is in the E-plagal mode and the first three trope elements cadence on E, this trope cadences on G, a rare cadence tone in this mode.
    2. A pair of complementary hexachords in twelve-tone technique.
      • 1963, George Perle, “Simultaneity”, in Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, Berkeley; Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, OCLC 224746225, page 120:
        The eighty six-note segments were originally tabulated by Hauer and are the basis of his twelve-tone system. Each of [Josef Matthias] Hauer's tropes consists of two hexachords of mutually exclusive content, so that each pair of hexachords includes all twelve tones of the semitonal scale. Only eight hexachords may be associated in this way with their own transpositions. These generate the eight tropes illustrated in examples 141 and 128. Each of the remaining seventy-two hexachords must be paired with a dissimilar hexachord in order to form a trope.
    3. (Judaism) A cantillation pattern, or one of the marks that represents it.
      • 1985, Steven M. Brown, “The Languages of Prayer”, in Stephen Garfinkel, editor, Higher and Higher: Making Jewish Prayer Part of Us, Department of Youth Activities, United Synagogue of America, OCLC 24536235, section 3 (The Language of Music), page 45:
        The Torah was chanted in a loud and strong voice so that all could hear. This cantillation of the Torah—trope—is shown by musical notation which serves grammatical and exegetical functions, ta'amay hamikra or ta'amay n'ginah. They put down in a final form an oral tradition that had been maintained for centuries. The Ashkenazim today have six systems of cantillation, each reflective of the texts and time of chanting. For example, on Tishah B'av the tunes are sad and doleful; on Purim the trope resembles a speedy narrative; the readings of Yamim Nora'im are quite majestic, and so on.
      • 2006, Sara E. Karesh; Mitchell M. Hurvitz, “trope”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism (Encyclopedia of World Religions), New York, N.Y.: Facts On File, Infobase Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8160-5457-2, page 526, column 1:
        The trope does not appear on the handwritten Torah scroll, but the assignment of notes for each word was fixed long ago and is accepted by Jewish communities around the world; the trope now appears in nearly every Jewish printed Bible. [] The symbols that signify the trope for the Hebrew text were introduced at the end of the 10th century of the Common Era.
    4. (Roman Catholicism) A phrase or verse added to the Mass when sung by a choir.
      • 1998, Peter M. Lefferts, “trope”, in Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, editors, Medieval England: An Encyclopedia (Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages; 3), New York, N.Y.: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-8240-5786-2; republished Abingdon, Oxon.; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2016, ISBN 978-1-138-06208-5, page 743, column 1:
        In the broadest sense tropes are all the later musical and textual accretions to the Franco-Roman nucleus of antiphonal and responsorial chants for mass and offices that we call Gregorian chant, a repertoire primarily fixed by the early 9th century. A trope might be a newly added textless melody (a melisma), text added to a preexistent melisma (a prosula), or newly composed text and melody added to an older item as an introduction or interpolation (a trope per se).
  5. (philosophy) Philosophical senses.
    1. (Greek philosophy) Any of the ten arguments used in skepticism to refute dogmatism.
      • 2003, Tanja Staehler, “The Historicity of Philosophy and the Role of Skepticism”, in David A. Duquette, editor, Hegel’s History of Philosophy: New Interpretations (SUNY Series in Hegelian Studies), Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-5543-2, page 116:
        For [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel, ancient skepticism preserved the essence of the skeptical principle, and the tropes express this principle. In the earlier ten tropes, there is, according to Hegel, a lack of abstraction that becomes obvious in the fact that their diversity could be grasped under more general points of view. [] Sextus [Empiricus] explains that the first four tropes are based on the judging subject; these deal with the differences among animals, the differences among human beings, the differences that distinguish the various senses, and, finally, circumstantial differences.
    2. (metaphysics) A particular instance of a property (such as the specific redness of a rose), as contrasted with a universal.
      • 2017, Brian Garrett, What is this Thing Called Metaphysics?, 3rd edition, Abingdon, Oxon.; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, ISBN 978-1-138-83224-4, pages 55–56:
        Trope theory, though a minority view today, has been popular at various times throughout the history of philosophy, especially among medieval philosophers. Trope theory holds that properties and relations are themselves (unrepeatable) particulars. (Tropes are also called 'abstract particulars' – 'abstract' in the sense of fine, partial and diffuse, not in the sense of outside space and time.) Thus the redness of a particular billiard ball is a trope, located where the ball is and nowhere else. A different but exactly resembling billiard ball has a numerically different but exactly resembling redness trope. There is no colour property common to, or instantiated in, both balls (similarly all other properties and relations).

Usage notesEdit

In the art or literature sense, the word trope is similar to archetype and cliché, but is not necessarily pejorative.

Derived termsEdit



trope (third-person singular simple present tropes, present participle troping, simple past and past participle troped)

  1. (transitive) To use, or embellish something with, a trope.
    • 1926, J[ames] M[idgley] Clark, “The Drama”, in The Abbey of St Gall as a Centre of Literature & Art, Cambridge: At the University Press, ISBN 879077804 Invalid ISBN, page 206:
      The motive for troping the introit was twofold. Firstly there was the desire to add colour, mystical fervour, to the restrained, matter-of-fact Roman rite. Besides this psychological reason there was a practical one. The introit was sung by the choir while the celebrants proceeded towards the altar to officiate at mass. This part of the ritual lent itself very readily to embellishment and expansion.
    • 2015, Alun Munslow, “Managing the Past”, in Patricia Genoe McLaren, Albert J. Mills, and Terrance G. Weatherbee, editors, The Routledge Companion to Management and Organizational History (Routledge Companions in Business, Management and Accounting), Abingdon, Oxon.; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-82371-5, page 133:
      The specific outcome of that 'story-telling' largely derives from how managers 'figure' their world – how they trope or 'figuratively turn' meanings. So, management decision(s) making is about figurative synthesis – troping literal meaning – as much as it might be analysis.
  2. (transitive) Senses relating chiefly to art or literature.
    1. To represent something figuratively or metaphorically, especially as a literary motif.
      • 1999, Heather Dubrow, “‘A Doubtfull Sense of Things’: Thievery in The Faerie Queene 6.10 and 6.11”, in Patrick Cheney and Lauren Silberman, editors, Worldmaking Spenser: Explorations in the Early Modern Age (Studies in the English Renaissance), Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 978-0-8131-2126-0, page 204:
        "So clomb this first grand Thief into God's Fold" (4.192), [John] Milton writes, thus troping Satan's transgression as neither deception, seduction, nor disobedience, though he presents it in those terms elsewhere, but rather as robbery.
      • 2002, Thomas Strychacz, “‘The Sort of Thing You Should Not Admit’: Ernest Hemingway’s Aesthetic of Emotional Restraint”, in Milette Shamir and Jennifer Travis, editors, Boy’s Don’t Cry?: Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the U.S., New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0-231-12034-0, page 151:
        It suggests that the "masculine" (or exaggeratedly masculine) style of Death in the Afternoon [by Ernest Hemingway] is not a formal or immanent attribute of the text but must be "engendered" through acts of interpretation. And it suggests that what was at stake in this "engendering" was nothing less than the preservation of powerful forms of authentic masculinity in the face of a work that, puzzlingly, seemed to trope the very notions of masculinity and modernism.
    2. To turn into, coin, or create a new trope.
      • 2009, Julie Clark Simon, “Voiceprinting: How Its Failures Speak”, in Emily Golson and Toni Glover, editors, Negotiating a Meta-pedagogy: Learning from Other Disciplines, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4438-0501-8, page 50:
        I troped the World Wide Web as an especially dangerous research venue. "Don't pick up anything unless you know where it has been," I said.
    3. To analyse a work in terms of its literary tropes.
  3. (intransitive) To think or write in terms of tropes.
    • 1988, Deborah Baker Wyrick, “Investitures: Swift and Verbal Authority”, in Jonathan Swift and the Vested Word, Chapel Hill, N.C.; London: University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-8078-1780-3, pages 39–40:
      By acting in loco parentis, the written word performs its own usurpations of generating authority and generated meanings. Therefore, after the brothers demolish the authority of the word as written, they ar able to substitute alternative authorities: the word as spoken, the word as added, the word as troped, the word as altered, the word as hidden.


Related termsEdit


Related termsEdit

Further readingEdit




trope m (plural tropes)

  1. (music, literature, linguistics) trope

Further readingEdit




  1. vocative singular of tropus