The noun trope traditionally refers to any figure of speech in which a word or phrase conveys a meaning other than its literal sense. For instance, the phrase broken heart and the use of Wall Street to refer to the U.S. finance industry are tropes because their literal meanings are different from what we understand them to mean. In recent usage, however, trope is a catchall for any familiar thing that recurs in art, media, politics, or social interaction, even if the recurring element is not figurative. For example, one might call the bumbling husband a sitcom trope because that sort of character appears often, or one might call the phrase “do more with less” a trope because politicians say it frequently.
This newer use of trope has faced some resistance, but so far this has not dented the word’s recent buzzword status or prevented it from growing more common each year. Those who dislike it can only hope that people will eventually grow sick of seeing the word everywhere and will stop using it so much.
Trope has been in English about five centuries, and its meaning has been mostly consistent through this time. It descends from the Latin tropus, meaning figure of speech, which in turn comes from a Greek word meaning a turn—itself a trope referring to the figurative turning of words from their literal meanings.
The newer uses of trope have developed only over the last few decades. The Oxford English Dictionary, which added the new sense in 2007, cites one example from 1975, and additional examples are easily found in literary criticism of the late 70s and early 80s (see below for examples), suggesting that the newer sense arose around that time in academia. The use of trope in general rose sharply through the 80s and 90s—presumably this is when writers dragged it out of literary criticism and started using it elsewhere—and it has thrived on the web in this century.
Finding recent examples of trope in the traditional sense is difficult because the few that must exist are buried among thousands of instances of the newer trope. So here are a few historical examples:
Conversation is not permitted without tropes; nothing but great weight in things can afford a quite literal speech. It is ever enlivened by inversion and trope. [“Poetry and Imagination,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1872)]
The New England poets have not overlooked the pine, however much they may have gone abroad for their themes and tropes. [Signs and Seasons, John Burroughs (1886)]
It is noteworthy that so many readers … should have been misled by so simple a trope as ‘the king of all our hearts.’ [Practical Criticism, Ivor Armstrong Richards (1946)]
Incest in Romantic literature is a trope for the primal chaos out of which the universe springs and to which it will return in the fullness of time. [“‘La Cuarterona’ and Slave Society in Cuba and Puerto Rico,” Aníbal González (1980)]
And these writers use trope in its newer sense:
That the Wolfman’s very self-conception is bound up with the fictions he was told and read and dreamed as a child suggests a classic trope of the modern novel, from Cervantes on, where the hero must be disillusioned of a bookish, mystified conception of reality [“Fictions of the Wolfman: Freud and Narrative Understanding,” Peter Brooks (1979)]
What we recognize in her work is the Freudian trope of the narcissistic woman, or the Lacanian “theme” of femininity as contained spectacle. [“The discourse of others: Feminists and postmodernism,” Craig Owens (1985)]
Characters with oddball monikers are a much-worn 60’s trope, one that hardly furthers their believability. [New York Times (2000)]
The ideal of self-cultivation or bildung was a trope central to the Victorian world and especially to Merideth’s artistry. [2001 introduction to Diana of the Crossways: A Novel (1897)]
While Barkin delivers a fully committed performance, the character is a typical Murphy trope: the person who says the forthright, cruel and often crude stuff. [Independent (2013)]
The recasting of feminism as only of interest to a few middle-class white women is a media trope. [New Statesman (2013)]