Why and How of the Terms Trope and Metaphor

by Mark Staff Brandl

A general comment on terminology is in order as we begin to discuss metaphor and art on this website. 1 The term trope will be used in all my posts when figurative language in general is meant — and especially when discussing the visual equivalent of this. Metaphor is one usual term for the idea which is discussed here. Unfortunately, though, this word is used in two distinct applications, one general and one particular. Confusion often results from this failure to distinguish the species from the genus. Metaphor may mean alternately either figurative expression itself, the genus — therefore identical with figurative language or trope — or that particular instance thereof, the species, usually described as follows.

A figure of speech, an implied analogy in which one thing is imaginatively compared to or identified with another, dissimilar thing. In metaphor, the qualities of something are ascribed to something else, qualities that it ordinarily does not possess.Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch 2

That is the famous description of metaphor as a “comparison without a like or as,” which is always taught in high school and secondary school literature classes. The most famous of these is “Achilles is a lion.” Useful terminology does not allow a thing to be a species of itself. Other terms bring other difficulties, all probably reflecting the various underlying philosophies of the animal under study. Various general terms include trope, figure and figurative language. The latter two would cause a problem when the theory is applied to visual art. Anything containing the word language is not interdisciplinary enough and figure in visual art is widely used to mean the human form (e.g. “figure painting”).

These terms are inadequate in reference to literature and visual art anyway. They clearly reinforce views of the subject opposite to those I espouse. Connotations such as figure skating or ornateness come to mind, declaring metaphor to be no more than decorative fancy. There are linked terms such as scheme, conceit, symbol, rhetoric, poesy, poetics, analogy, etc. Yet each expresses a particular idea somewhat askew of my intentions and my own theoretical interests. In fact, as my metaphor(m) or central trope theory comes ever more to the fore, I believe it will be shown that some of these terms describe ideas which are corollaries or particular instances of metaphor(m). They will each be addressed in the future.

In short, the problems with the term reflect old, deficient and competing theories of the thing itself. I will NOT be using trope in the way it is often now misused in the artworld to mean cliché! Trope, as said, is the umbrella term for all rhetorical analogies (metaphor, metonymy, etc.) All the arts, probably all thought, is based in tropaic thought. If you are really looking for a term for a “commonplace notion not often recognized as such,” then you probably mean topos (plural topoi), NOT trope.

Trope is difficult in another minor fashion because it is derived from turning, which might suggest that analogies of any sort are decorative twists on normal “transparent” speech. However, it seems that trope and its concomitant adjectives tropological or tropaic are the most promising. Turning can be envisioned in other, more evocative images and analogies. Turning something around to perceive more sides of it. Turning something toward the light to see it better. And so on. Therefore it will serve as the general term, metaphor will be chiefly used in its specific application (“no like or as” species), occasionally substituting for the general, along with the other terms mentioned, where this occurs in common use and for stylistic variety. It is included in the title of our website and my dissertation for the word play as noted, and because it remains an important keyword in any literature search of poetics. In addition, cognitive science now envisions metaphor as the broad basis of thought itself. Generally when we are talking about metaphor here, we mean the process of making embodied visual analogies. When I mean all the possible forms of this, I will write trope. When I mean a specific form, 3 I will use the appropriate specific term from rhetoric, explaining it and why I am using it.