Trope (rhetoric)

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The trope (the trope , plural tropics ) is in the Rhetorik an umbrella term for certain classes of rhetorical figures (linguistic style agent). It is derived from ancient Greek τρόπος (plural τρόποι) or τροπή tropé 'phrase' and denotes the replacement of one expression by another, which is not synonymous but belongs to a different field of meaning.

The tropics are semantic figures, which distinguish them from other rhetorical figures, which have their effect through the phonological form (phonological figures) of the words ( e.g. alliteration ) or through a special position of the words in the sentence (syntactic figures) achieve (e.g. parallelism ).

The best known tropes are metaphor , irony , metonymy and synecdoche . They make up the main part of the semantic figures. Examples of semantic figures that do not belong to the tropics are pleonasm , oxymoron and hysteron proteron .

In the Anglo-Saxon language area, “trope” is also used as a term for a literary convention and especially for a ( clichéd ) narrative element, i.e. in the sense of a literary topos or a (conventional) motif . "Trope" is also used with this meaning in TV Tropes , a special online lexicon for narrative set pieces in various media.


Three elements can be identified that are important for the formation of a trope:

  • the substituent “S2”: the actual trope, that is, the new replacing term;
  • the substitute "S1": the original term that has been replaced ( verbum proprium );
  • the signal context "K": the sentence environment that indicates that something has been replaced.
Example: Achilles kills Hector with his anger. Here, anger would function as "S2", that is, as the actual trope. The sentence environment tells the reader that Achilles must have used a certain object to kill Hector. But it would have to have been a specific object for which anger is out of the question. This contradiction would represent the signal context "K", which indicates that an original term "S1" has been replaced. A sword or weapon , for example, could be used for this .


Tropics can be divided into different categories, although the exact assignment is not always clear. The content area of ​​the replacing expression can differ from the content area of ​​the replaced expression. Accordingly, a distinction is made between limit shift tropes and jump tropes.

If the content areas are close together, one speaks of a neighborhood stropus or border shift stropus. These include the figures metonymy and synecdoche.

Example: Virgil's Aeneid begins with the words: arma virumque cano ... ( I sing about weapons and the man ... ). What is actually meant is: I sing of war deeds and Aeneas . The content areas of acts of war and weapons or Aeneas and man are close together.

If, on the other hand, both content areas are far apart, one speaks of a leap tropus. These include the characters metaphor and irony.

Example: He thundered the ball into the goal. What is meant is: He shot the ball with great force into the goal. The verb thunder comes from the content area meteorology and is far removed from the content area sport .

Metonymy and synecdoche

Metonymy and Synekdoche are the two central tropes of boundary shifting. How strong a distinction should be made between the two types is controversial in research: If only the proximity of the content area is considered, the synecdoche appears as a mere special form of metonymy. If, on the other hand, the rhetorical effect is examined, the two types differ from one another.

A metonymy exists if the replacing term comes from the content area of ​​the original word, but does not actually represent a part of it. Among other things, the meaning of different pairs of terms can be swapped, such as cause / effect , space / volume or substance / accident .

Example: Alexander conquered Persia. Alexander, of course, was unable to take Persia alone: ​​this credit goes to his army. The principal Alexander replaces the agent Alexander's army at this point . The metonymy thus has a reductionist effect. It attributes complex effects to simplifying causes.

It is a synecdoche when there is a quantitative division or summary. Either a part stands for its whole or, conversely, the collective represents an individual. A synekdoche has an integrating effect: the whole apparently has the same intentions as all of its parts, while conversely these only wish to carry out the collective will. If this linguistic integration is taken too far, however, it simplifies reality to such an extent that it can have a propaganda effect.

Example: a) Pars pro toto : Germans (in themselves) love order. Here it is formally only stated that an individual ( the German ) has a certain quality ( orderly ). What is meant, however, is the entire collective of Germans, to which a certain characteristic is ascribed across the board.
Example: b) Totum pro parte : (Whole) Germany is afraid of the bird flu. This is the reverse case of the previous example: The whole ( Germany ) stands for a number of its parts that cannot be precisely determined, since not every German necessarily fears bird flu.

Metaphor and irony

Metaphor and irony are types from the jumping tropics. What they have in common is that content areas that clearly do not belong together are interwoven. There are various associations ( connotations ) inherent in the terms, which are now related to each other.

In a metaphor, the replacing term takes on some of the associations of the original term. It thus has a romanticizing effect, as it brings certain properties of a term to the fore while obscuring others.

Example: Organized crime extortes protection money from retailers . Collecting money without any real consideration and under duress is simply blackmail . Since the mafia tries to act as a regular regulatory authority whenever possible, the term protection money is used. A trade and a theft have in common that money changes hands in both cases. The difference is that it is only voluntary in the former case. By using the expression protection money , on the one hand the association of a trade (money for protection) and on the other hand that of a guard (protective power) is awakened.

Irony has exactly the opposite effect, as a contradiction is deliberately created not only on the formal, but also on the associative level. This has a negative effect, i.e. H. the meaning of the actual expression is weakened.

Example: One more victory and I'm lost. This statement is put into the mouth of King Pyrrhus of Epirus after the narrow victory in the battle of Asculum . There is an obvious contradiction between the positive association of victory and the negative one of lost . In this case it should be expressed that the victory in the battle has little value due to high own losses.

Differentiation of the four types

Based on the basic form Achilles kills Hector with his spear , all four types of trope can be used:

  • Metonymy: Achilles kills Hector with his steel. Instead of the spear , attention is drawn to the specific quality of the weapon, in this case to the material of the blade, namely steel .
  • Synekdoche: Achilles kills Hector with his blade. The blade is only part of the spear (next to the handle and rod), but is used here as a seemingly synonymous term.
  • Metaphor: Achilles kills Hector with his anger. The anger , which does not come from the term weapon , has a romanticizing effect and weakens the act of killing.
  • Irony: Achilles kills Hector with his grace. Here, grace is used instead of the opposite term vengeance in order to ridicule Achilles' deed.

Secondary tropics

In addition to the four named primary tropes, other rhetorical figures can also be counted among the tropics:

  • If a term is only replaced because you want to avoid repetition, it is called a periphrase or antonomasia . These are mostly synecdochons.
  • Related to irony is the litotes , in which emphasis is achieved by double negation. The litotes substitutes the actual term with the negation of the opposite. Example: “Small sum” is a diminutive, but it actually means a large sum. The understatement is reinforcing. Other examples would be the expressions “not very small” or “very neat”.
  • Likewise, the hyperbola extends into the area of ​​irony, as an unbelievable comparison is deliberately made here. In the case of hyperbola, the actual term is exaggerated in its intensity and size. The truth is exaggerated, and this should be done within an appropriate framework. Examples: "extra-great", "mega", "I'm not interested in a my".
  • The epanorthosis (Greek epanorthosis), a quick and emphatic self-correction of the spoken word, often following the Freudian slip of the tongue.


  • Hans Baumgarten: Compendium Rhetoricum. The most important stylistic devices. A selection , Göttingen 1998 (tabular overview with Latin and German examples) ISBN 3525710178
  • Lothar Kolmer / Carmen Rob-Santer: Study book Rhetorik , Paderborn 2002, ISBN 3-506-97017-8
  • George Lakoff / Mark Johnson: Life in Metaphors. Construction and use of language images , Heidelberg 1998
  • Heinrich Lausberg : Elements of literary rhetoric , Munich 1963 (since then several new editions)
  • Heinrich F. Plett : Systematic Rhetoric , Munich 2000
  • Nicolas Ruwet: Synekdochen and Metonymien , In: Anselm Haverkamp (Ed.): Theory of Metaphor , Darmstadt 1983, pp. 253–282 (translation from the French)
  • Hermann Schlueter: Basic Course in Rhetoric , Munich 1974
  • Christian Strub: Ordo troporum naturalis. To the systematization of the tropics , In: Jürgen Fohrmann (Ed.): Rhetorik. Figuration and Performance , Stuttgart 2004, pp. 7–38
  • Hayden White : Metahistory . The historical imagination in 19th century Europe. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-596-11701-1 . (Connection of tropes and historiography)
  • Eckard Rolf: metaphor theories. Typology - Presentation - Bibliography , Berlin [u. a.], de Gruyter, 2005, ISBN 3-11-018331-5 (systematic overview of various, theoretical approaches to metaphor)

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Trope in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary . : Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts 2019, accessed August 5, 2019.
  2. Trope on, accessed on August 5 of 2019.
  3. cf. Plett, Systematic Rhetoric , p. 191
  4. cf. White, metahistory