The Grammarphobia Blog

Rick Santorum—a tropism for the tragic?

Q: David Brooks recently said in the New York Times that Rick Santorum “has a tropism for the tragic.” I happen  to like the word “trope” and use it fairly often, but I’m unfamiliar with the use of “tropism” in other than the scientific sense.

A: When David Brooks said Rick Santorum “has a tropism for the tragic,” he meant the candidate is drawn toward tragedy.

Brooks went on to explain: “Santorum seems to dwell on misfortune—the enemies the country faces, the depravity closing in on us, the unfair criticism hurled against him, the terrible things that have happened. When the campaign goes into its fallen state, he has the pleasure of seeing his tragic worldview confirmed.”

Brooks was using “tropism,” a scientific term meaning a turning, in a metaphorical way.

When “tropism” first came into English in the early 19th century, it wasn’t a word in itself, but merely an element in other words. And all of them had something to do with turning in a particular direction in response to a stimulus.

Many such words can be found in botany or biology. For example, plants that exhibit “heliotropism,” a term dating from 1854, turn or bend toward light. And “geotropism” (1873), a characteristic of plant roots and some animals, means a turning (or a growth pattern) in response to gravity.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the separate word “tropism” came into English in the late 19th century in response to those longer scientific terms of which it was previously a part.

The OED defines the word as “the turning of an organism, or a part of one, in a particular direction (either in the way of growth, bending, or locomotion) in response to some special external stimulus, as that of light (phototropism, heliotropism), heat (thermotropism), gravity (geotropism), etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the biologist C. B. Davenport’s Experimental Morphology (1899):

“All cases of true tropism are cases of response to stimuli: such are chemotropism, hydrotropism, thigmotropism, traumatropism, rheotropism, geotropism, electrotropism, phototropism and thermotropism.”

All the OED’s citations for “tropism” use it in the scientific sense. But we’ll bet that Oxford will soon be adding examples of its metaphorical use, in which it seems to mean a general tendency or predilection toward something.

The key element in all this turning is the noun “trope,” which ultimately comes from the Greek tropos, a turn.

“Trope” has been part of English since the 16th century, when it was used to mean a figure of speech—a nonliteral turn of phrase.

More recently, the word has also come to mean a recurring theme or motif. The OED’s first example of this newer usage is from a book review in the Chicago Tribune in 1975:

“Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood.”

And here’s a final example, from David Rieff’s Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World:

“A more unvarnished version of the same trope was Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner.”

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