A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions

by Mark Staff Brandl

The apple does not fall far from the horse. Tamea 1

In order to keep some of our vocabulary clear here on Metaphor and Art, I am presenting a short glossary of important terms, the 12 most important forms of metaphoric, tropaic, forms of analogy.

This is not just fun to know (although I find that alone intriguing), but rather an enjoyable way to think about art. What would visual equivalents of each be? Are you already using one of these intuitively in your own art? What would it be like if you changed that to one of the other tropes? What, e.g., would my image be if I changed it to a litote? And so on.

Trope

The general term for all figurative expressions, metaphorically comparative images and the like. All ‘bildlich’ elements of the arts. In visual art, the process of making embodied visual analogies.

Metaphor

An implied indirect comparison between two unlike things that are suggested to have something important in common although they are quite different to one another. “Achilles is a lion.”

Metonymy

A trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated; describing something indirectly by referring to things around it or from the context. “The White House spoke of 77 injured soldiers.”

Simile

A stated comparison (usually formed with “like” or “as”) between two fundamentally dissimilar things that have certain qualities in common. Like a metaphor that points out its own activity. “My love is like a red, red rose.”

Synecdoche

A trope in which a part is used to represent the whole (for example, ABC’s for alphabet) or the whole for a part (“England won the World Cup in 1966”). “There were hundreds of faces at the event.”

Litotes

A trope consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. “He is no vulcano.” (for: He is too placid.)

Hyperbole

A trope using exaggeration to reinforce the actual expression: “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Irony

The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” (Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, 1964).

Analogy

Similar circumstances are situated together in a context; comparability used to further thought; a problem is viewed from another angle by the process of consciously making a new comparison. “If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it to you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.” Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways.

Allegory

Generally broader than a single trope. Tropaic treatment of one subject under the guise of another in a symbolical narrative or complex scene. (Although an allegory uses symbols, it is different from a symbolism. An allegory is a complete narrative, which involves characters, and events that stand for an abstract idea or an event. A symbol, on the other hand, is an object that stands for another object giving it a particular meaning.) Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe political reality.

Symbol

Generally speaking, a symbol is not actually a trope. It is something used for or regarded as representing something else, often rather arbitrarily, heavy-handedly or simply by way of tradition; this is often material object representing something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign. Purple is a royal color. Blue represents melancholy in many languages, in German it stands for drunkness.

Metalepsis

Also called transumption. The paradoxical transgression of ontological (and not merely narrative) levels of representation, “a trope on a trope,” is the “trope of tropes” in Modern and Postmodern times (according to Harold Bloom, mainly). It can occur in three ways:

  1. Intrusion of the author (breaking the proscenium arch, so to speak). Example: The author Milan Kundera intrudes regularly in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to give philosophical observations.
  2. a play on two words, the second of which has a double meaning (a somewhat childish form; a pun): “The room was not light, but his figures were.” Light meaning both “not dark” and “light-fingered/thieving.”
  3. Most important: use of later in place or earlier (or the opposite)—a kind of structural or narrative “pun,” double temporality of a work and its presentation; the story AND its telling; a “mistake” in time; a trope reversing trope; often—playing a metonymy on another trope, a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope; troping on a forerunner’s trope.

Example: Milton's simile of Stan’s shield comes from Homer’s Achilles (Illiad) and The Faerie Queen’s Radigund, but he adds facts gleaned from Galileo’s telescope anachronistically (craters—were always there, so Milton is “smarter,” yet the facts are earlier, yet the knowledge of them is later).

As I was searching for useful exemplary metalepses, an amusing event occurred. A young daughter of friends of ours made one off the cuff while teasing her father. He had been teasing her, saying she was impudent, cheeky. She said “The apple does not fall far from the … horse.” It was hilarious. We all expected, of course, the word ‘tree’ as in the typical expression, yet she played a further more complicated joke by making that ‘horse.’ Making her a horse-apple and her father, in effect, a horse’s ass. The tropaic genius of childhood!

Notes:

  1. Tamea, 12 years old. Personal experience.
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