Etymology Usage

Can an animal die tragically?

Q: I foolishly decided to pick a nit with a zealous animal lover over the euthanizing of a young dog. I maintained that the death an animal could be unexpected, untimely, sad, lamentable, etc., but not tragic (though I believe there’s a goat in the etymology of “tragedy”). My friend maintains that if the traumatized owners felt it was tragic, then it was so. Your thoughts?

A: There is indeed a goat element in the word “tragedy” (more on this later). However, we’re inclined to agree with you. While the death of an animal may be all of the adjectives you suggest, we wouldn’t call it tragic.

Of course, this is a value judgment on our part, not a matter of correctness or incorrectness. Certainly the loss of a treasured pet can be devastating.

The two of us are still grieving over the dog we lost last summer. When she died, we might have felt her death as tragic on a personal level, but we would not have used that word in speaking about it.

That’s because in recent years we’ve experienced real tragedy; several friends and relatives have died needlessly and much too soon. Such things give one a sense of proportion.

Remembering those losses, we could not in good conscience use the word “tragic” to describe our dog’s death, no matter how traumatized we felt.

Definitions of “tragedy,” the noun from which “tragic” derives, don’t specifically say the calamity has to befall a human being.

But this is clearly the way most people interpret “tragedy.” And this is how the word was used in classical times, when it got its start in Greek drama.

Although animals appear in Greek tragedy, the tragic heroes are human. (The classicist Chiara Thumiger has written about animal imagery in Greek tragedy.)

The word “tragedy” comes from the Greek tragoidia, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology defines as “a dramatic poem or play in formal or stately language and action having an unhappy resolution.”

The Greek word literally means “goat song,” from the roots tragos (goat) and oide (song or ode). The reason for the goat connection can only be guessed.

Chambers notes that several theories have been proposed. One is that the original actors or singers wore goatskins to represent satyrs. Another is that “a goat may have been the prize for the best performance.”

When “tragedy” came into English in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion.”

In English, “tragedy” was exclusively a dramatic term until the 16th century, when people started using it figuratively to describe real-life events.

The OED defines its new meaning as “an unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster.”

When the adjective “tragic” came along in the mid-16th century, it was used both in reference to “tragedy as a branch of the drama,” the OED says, and to events “characterized by or involving ‘tragedy’ in real life; calamitous, disastrous, terrible, fatal.”

People choose their own words to describe their own experiences. If they prefer to call the loss of a pet tragic, they’re free to do so, of course.

But you asked for our thoughts, and there they are.

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