Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Here in the Midwest, and indeed across the country, the weather has become unseasonably and unreasonably hot. To say that the weather has “taken a turn toward the tropical” would not only be accurate, but etymologically apt. Let me explain:
People have been noticing the change of seasons and the regular shifts in the sun’s relative position for a long, long time — it’s hard not to notice. As I explained in “Solstices and Equinoxes,” early astronomers and meteorologists (before either of those words existed) recognized that the sun rose and set a little farther north or a little farther south each day, but twice a year, the sun would stay in almost the same place for a couple days. The sun would “stand still” on those days, so they called them what became the English word solstices, from the Latin sol “sun” plus sistere “to stand still.”
But of course the sun didn’t stay still for long — after a solstice, it starts moving in the other direction. From our perspective on the ground, the sun turns around and moves the other direction. In ancient Greek, the word for “a turning” was trope, and the adjective meaning “pertaining to a turn” was tropikos.
The word solstice comes from Latin, so the ancient Greeks didn’t call it that. They referred to the solstice as the tropikos kyklos, literally the “turning cycle.” Tropikos became the Latin tropicus, which became the English word tropic, which, by the end of the 1300s, was being used in English writing to describe the northernmost and southernmost position of the sun in the sky — the farthest the sun reaches before it turns around again.
Then came the Age of Exploration, and globes, and latitude and longitude lines. The Earth, it turned out, is tilted at about 23.5 degrees relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. So in the 1520s, the latitude line at 23 degrees 28 minutes north — where the sun appears directly overhead on the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice — was named the Tropic of Cancer, and the same line in the south, the Tropic of Capricorn. In another 300 years, the area that fell between these two lines was being called the tropics, where tropical weather was the norm.
The sun isn’t the only thing that did some turning, though. I mentioned before that the Greek word for “a turning” was trope, and I’d wager that you recognized that as an English word as well. That’s no coincidence.
In Modern English, a trope is a common (and often overused) storytelling theme or device. If you’ve seen more than five movies or read more than five novels, you’ve experienced a trope: the orphaned child with special powers, the bad guys who wear black, the hero who rides off into the sunset.
Originally, though, a trope was a more specific rhetorical device. It was a figure of speech — you might say a turn of phrase — in which a word or phrase is used in a way different from its primary meaning. The word’s was “turned” away from its original meaning. A rhetorical trope might be calling an alluring woman a vixen (which is just a female fox) or a thick-headed man a dumbbell.
You can imagine how a rhetorical trope might become popular and then quickly become overused. Once the word left the jargon of rhetoric and entered the general vocabulary, that sense of overuse became more salient, and the meaning of trope was diluted to the common sense of today.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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