– Rant # 166 –  


Who hasn’t memorized pretty much every word of The Princess Bride? After Fezzik keeps misusing the word ‘inconceivable’, Inigo finally says to him, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” That doesn’t make Fezzik an idiot. We all misuse words. I once told my then-wife, “Darling, you are the bane of my existence!” And this was when I was courting her, not divorcing her. I just had the meaning of the word reversed in my head. But Fezzik would be an idiot if he used words that mean nothing at all.

This is not to say that ‘trope’ doesn’t have a meaning. It’s the word for that collection of literary devices that make use of metonymy, such as similes, metaphors, synecdoche, and so on. It’s also the word for when one of these devices is oft-repeated, like when we talk about a Trojan horse. But some time, about twenty years ago, it got picked up by the anti-denialist rhetoricians to mean … Well, that’s just the question, isn’t it? To mean what?

Not unlike the Tribbish word ‘gavagai’, all one can do is observe the contexts in which it’s used and try to induce its likely meaning. And that’s all those who repeated it could do, except they never did induce a meaning. So why have they been so intent on repeating it? For the same reason John Oliver is so intent on saying ‘Fuck!’ It doesn’t mean anything. It just makes him sound hip.

Now then, there’s nothing wrong with trying to sound hip, provided that’s all you’re trying to do when you make utterances like, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” But that’s not all you’re trying to do, is it? You’re using the word ‘trope’ to mean an argument the unsoundness of which is a res judicata. But then, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” is itself just a trope.

As is “There is no debate about global warming!” It’s a move in a language game. It’s a blocking maneuver, not unlike a heartfelt rights-claim in moral discourse. If a pro-Choicer says, her voice quaking with conviction, “I have a right to control my own body!”, the rules of the game allow you to say, “Yes, but the unborn have rights too!” But what you’re not allowed to say is, “Well no, as a matter of fact you don’t have a right to control your own body!” Denying anything so heartfelt by your interlocutor is just churlish.

Likewise, then, if you say, “There is no debate about global warming!”, I’d obviously be betraying my ignorance if I say, “Yes there is!” “There’s no debate about global warming!” plays the same role as “Only an idiot believes that …”, or “Anyone familiar with the literature knows …” I think in informal logic it’s called the argument from intellectual intimidation.

You can get away with these moves with your first-year students, but by year two or three they’re on to you. Then you just come across as an intellectual fraud. If you have an argument against what you call a denialist trope, then let’s hear it. If you’re bored with the debate, or you think you’d be casting pearls before swine, and so you just don’t want to bother making your case, that’s fine. But then just shut the fuck up!

There now, did that make me sound hip?

Categories: Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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1 reply

  1. “Some Reasons Why You Should Never Use the Word ‘Trope’ Again Ever.”

    by Simon Indelicate at

    Trope is the worst word in the world and you’re a bad person if you use it. If this sounds a little harsh, it’s because you’re a bad person.

    It comes from classical rhetoric, where it originally meant little more than ‘turn of phrase’, but where it developed into a technical term to refer to a use of language which resulted in an alteration of the meanings of the words used. In classical rhetoric metaphor is a trope; so is irony.

    And that would have been fine – an ugly, fat sounding word, yes, but one with little reason to be used unless in referring to collections of tropes that contained more than one subtype of them. Probably, the classical rhetorician who found the obnoxiously pouty syllable inescapable would hurry over it quickly and move on to saying an enjoyable word like ‘synecdoche’ – but that was the extent of the distastefulness. It hung around the edges of language like an offputtingly intense goth at a rugby club, a calm and unobtrusive ripple in the darkness of unexplored space.

    But then two things happened.

    One thing was that bad literary theorists inherited a won war from the previous generation of average, but radically disruptive, literary theorists who had fought traditionalists for control of the arts half of academia in the 60s and 70s. They had come of age in thrall to the campus celebrities who’d come before and, like tea-party patriots or UKIP euro election candidates, they mistook a deeply conservative desire to maintain a recent status quo (from which they were personally benefitting) for edgy radicalism.

    By the mid-90s, they had transformed the academy into an outfit of imperial clothing; and they had given the quite bright middle class student a means to walk between its raindrops.

    All the last few generations have had to do to maintain an easy passage through the academy’s halls is learn a silly, unattractive code and recite it over and over without ever pointing out that the content of their discourse is largely obvious to everybody and that this would be easily spotted if they once framed it in proper sentences. The lesson that has been taught is that it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters how obscurely you say it.

    It is often said of this critique that it is anti-intellectual. This term, however, is an othering signifier that redefines heterodox normativity as being encompassed by the deleuzian totality of “thought”, when in actuality, any politics of ‘intellectual’ identity is a self-imposed frame that privileges itself with recourse to totalitarian violence that must be resisted in both the Vaneigemian and ‘actual’ qua ‘actual’ senses. So I disagree.

    The other thing that happened was the internet. The internet is good – it has accelerated the process by which ideas are shared, entwined and mated to an astonishing pace. New ideas are coming thicker and faster than ever before and there’s a good chance that this will do more real good for the great mass of humankind than anything ever.

    It does, however, have its price.

    It used to be that lies could run round the world before the truth had its boots on – now rubbish academic phrases can circle the entire globe via a billion fibre-optic pathways a billion times in a billion ways before the truth has even noticed that its boots are missing laces and have a hole in the bottom. Speed has made written language subject to ebbing, superficial fashion in a way that was once the preserve of geographically isolated spoken slang.

    There used to be kevs, townies, gavs, neds, scallies and (apparently) barryboys – it took the meme churning, middle class circle jerk of the pre-social media blogosphere to amalgamate them all under the umbrella sneer: ‘chav’. A few years ago everyone was identifying everybody else’s straw men. For a while now – as the blandest iteration of academic radical-pretending conservatism has finally filtered through to a generation of graduates who now spend all their time turning their thoughts into sentences – the word that can’t be avoided is Trope, and – like I said – Trope is the worst word in the world.

    It no longer means what it meant to classical rhetoricians. It’s hard, in fact, to pin down exactly what people do think it means as it is used so widely by so many so badly. The closest two definitions I can attempt are: 1. Anything at all which has been in at least two fictions and 2. A Cliché.

    The second is easy enough to deal with. There are occasions when it’s valuable to point out a cliché. A story about a woman being saved by a hero is clichéd – and when you see a story like that, it’s probably worth a few words to point out that it’s a cliché. Cliché has a well understood, well established meaning. A cliché is something that has been repeatedly used to the point where it has lost it’s original meaning to some or all observers. Clichés are, at best, lazy and at worst, genuinely harmful cultural artefacts that oppress or inhibit people. This is especially true when they haven’t been identified as clichés and, as such, identifying them is probably a worthwhile thing to do. There’s no need to use Trope though. There is already a word for this kind of cliché. It’s cliché. So use that.

    The other kind is where it gets really bad. A trope here is just any identifiable plot, motif, character type or any other aspect of fictional work that can be recognised as having occurred more than once. In that, can you honestly think of a single usage that could add anything to anyone’s understanding of what you’re saying? The website defines it as “a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.” Right. So the whole audience already knows that the thing in question is what the use of the word trope intends to inform them that it is. The word adds nothing. It communicates nothing. It has an information content of zero. It is a dead fucking parrot.

    Or… not quite. Because it does communicate something, doesn’t it?

    It communicates that the user of the word would like you to know that – despite the fact that they are talking about something which they know that everybody already knows – they aren’t talking about it on some base, common level like you might. No. they are talking about it on the kind of level where people say trope. Yeah, sure, they’re watching The Hobbit or whatever, but they’re not watching it like the dumb masses watch it because when they see an old wise bloke explaining the plot to some dwarves they’ve noticed that it’s a TROPE and are, therefore, winning in some way.

    I’d call it intellectual masturbation, but that would be a disservice to wanking – it isn’t nearly so interesting. What it is is intellectual trainspotting.

    At best.

    Itemizing the tropes in some piece of culture is just an utterly worthless, self-importantly boring thing to do. You signify nothing, and can’t even muster some decent sound and fury to mask the fact. If there is any critical value in saying that part of something is a trope – then it was probably really a cliché anyway.

    As a bitter, miserable cynic, there’s little I hate more than the pretend-jaded fake-cynicism of the common-or-garden trope sayer. Identifying a trope does not prove that you have conquered some art with cleverness. Your application of labels has not tamed it or reduced it to something you could have bettered if you hadn’t been writing trope on the internet all day. The use of trope communicates nothing about the thing its applied to and only seeks to communicate things about its author. In fact, it results in an alteration of the meaning of the word used and, as such, is kind of a trope (in the classically rhetorical and only acceptable sense).

    So stop it. The number of cracked articles I’ve had to stop reading in the last six months when a stupid little Trope has waltzed in to draw attention to the otherwise well-disguised vapidity… there has been ENOUGH of this.

    Look, read this out loud:

    Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope Trope

    I may not have convinced you, I may have annoyed you but, at the very least, I’d like to think that I’ve used the word Trope enough times that it has become awkward in your mouth. Try to say it now – don’t you find that you are very aware of your tongue? Can you feel the sides of it against your teeth?

    Annoying isn’t it? Every time you try to prevocalise the word TROPE in order to say it or type it out – there’s that feeling – your tongue, an alien slug just sat in your mouth, aggravating you. Causing a slow hot flush to start in the skin just below your earlobes and spread to your forehead – now beading with sweat.

    What’s wrong with your tongue? Was it always that big? that noticeable? Trope – imagine saying it as you type the letters – imagine the tip of your massive, lolling tongue brushing the back of your front teeth and then settling with the ‘p’ into the hollow of your mouth – wide, present and uncomfortable. TRRRRROOOPPPPE. Can you feel it?

    Now try writing Trope again. HA.


    -click here-


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