A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.
The term trope derives from the Greek τρόπος (tropos), "turn, direction, way", derived from the verb τρέπειν (trepein), "to turn, to direct, to alter, to change". Tropes and their classification were an important field in classical rhetoric. The study of tropes has been taken up again in modern criticism, especially in deconstruction. Tropological criticism (not to be confused with tropological reading, a type of biblical exegesis) is the historical study of tropes, which aims to "define the dominant tropes of an epoch" and to "find those tropes in literary and non-literary texts", an interdisciplinary investigation of which Michel Foucault was an "important exemplar".
In medieval writing
A specialized use is the medieval amplification of texts from the liturgy, such as in the Kyrie Eleison (Kyrie, / magnae Deus potentia, / liberator hominis, / transgressoris mandati, / eleison). The most important example of such a trope is the Quem quaeritis?, an amplification before the Introit of the Easter Sunday service and the source for liturgical drama. This particular practice came to an end with the Tridentine Mass, the unification of the liturgy in 1570 promulgated by Pope Pius V.
Types and examples
- Allegory – A sustained metaphor continued through whole sentences or even through a whole discourse. For example: "The ship of state has sailed through rougher storms than the tempest of these lobbyists."
- Antanaclasis – The stylistic trope of repeating a single word, but with a different meaning each time; antanaclasis is a common type of pun, and like other kinds of pun, it is often found in slogans.
- Hyperbole - the use of exaggeration to create a strong impression.
- Irony – Creating a trope through implying the opposite of the standard meaning, such as describing a bad situation as "good times".
- Metaphor – An explanation of an object or idea through juxtaposition of disparate things with a similar characteristic, such as describing a courageous person as having a "heart of a lion".
- Metonymy – A trope through proximity or correspondence. For example, referring to actions of the U.S. President as "actions of the White House".
- Synecdoche – Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as "hired hands" for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as "the law" for police officers; the general with the specific, such as "bread" for food; the specific with the general, such as "cat" for a lion; or an object with its substance, such as "bricks and mortar" for a building.
- Catachresis – improper use of metaphor
For a longer list, see Figure of speech: Tropes.
Kenneth Burke has called metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony the "four master tropes" due to having the most common application in everyday occurrence.
These tropes can be used to represent common recurring themes throughout creative works, and in a modern setting relationships and character interactions. It can also be used to denote examples of common repeating figures of speech.
Whilst most of the various forms of phrasing described above are in common usage, most of the terms themselves are not, in particular antanaclasis, litotes, metonymy, synecdoche and catachresis.
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