Being a child of the 1960s-70s, until the Ilhan Omar brouhaha broke, I hadn’t fully realized that the word “trope” has largely replaced the word “cliché” and is sneaking up on “stereotype.” I’d always associated tropism with what sunflowers do, but that’s not really relevant to the current usage of “trope:” Merriam-Webster defines “trope” as:
a: a word or expression used in a figurative sense : FIGURE OF SPEECH
b : a common or overused theme or device : CLICHÉ
For example, here are just some of the New York Times’ recent references to the crazy brave Somali politician as dealing in “tropes,” which, like cliches and stereotypes can’t possibly be true because everybody has heard of them.
– Feb 11, 2019 – WASHINGTON — Representative Ilhan Omar, who has been … are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Ms. Omar said in …
– Feb 11, 2019 – Weekend tweets by Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota that were … “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s …
– 1 day ago – Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, center, on … of the House, who say it played into the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”.
– Feb 12, 2019 – The old trope that Jews have secret powers to control other people. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota congresswoman, dabbled in this sort of …
– 9 hours ago – … from a freshman representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar — and …. that her critics say played into the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.
– 3 days ago – WASHINGTON — When Representative Ilhan Omar landed a … with even Democratic leaders accusing her of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes.
– 12 hours ago – Some Democrats say Representative Ilhan Omar is being singled out as a … has been accused repeatedly of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes.
– 5 days ago – Ilhan Omar has come under fresh criticism for remarks critics call … But some Jewish leaders say Omar then revived an old trope about divided …
According to Google’s nGram database of books, trope was used at an infrequent but stable rate from 1800 to 1980, at which point it began to take off. Meanwhile, after 1940 “cliché” and “stereotype” began to explode in usage, becoming two of the more clichéd stereotypes and stereotypical clichés of 1960s books.
But by 2000, the “trope” trope surpassed the “cliché” trope. Through 2007 (the last full year in the nGram data), cliché was in freefall. Thus, the vast “TV Tropes” archive is not known as “TV Cliches” as it likely would have been named in 1970.
What’s the difference? TV Tropes defines cliche as
A cliché is a phrase, motif, trope, or other element within an artistic work that has become common enough to be seen as an expected part of a work.
Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché. …
Note that currently the Oxford English Dictionary actually recognizes the definition “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif”, its earliest quotation for this meaning being from 1975. Merriam-Webster also somewhat recognizes this meaning, but twists it into “a common or overused theme or device: cliché”, which seems unjustly condemning.
My impression is that TV Tropes thinks of a trope as a pre-cliche that only sophisticates, like the millions of us who kill time checking out TV Tropes, yet recognize.
But the New York Times’ Ilhan Omar coverage seems to use “trope” the way it uses “stereotype:” as a hatefact that too many people have heard of to be true. And since reality can only be perceived by the tiny elite of Gnostic initiates who know that anything that is widely known (e.g., the average Jew tends to be wealthier and more politically influential than the average non-Jew) must be, by definition, a stereotype and cliche and a trope, and can therefore be dismissed out of hand
So, what’s next once “trope” becomes as cliched as “cliche?” I’m guessing some Professor of English Literature Theory is using it right now.