A Turn of Phrase

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 20, 2008, issue of November 28, 2008.
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David Gruber writes from Win–nipeg, Manitoba:

“I have recently encountered a new use of the word ‘trope.’ The first instance was a commentator describing a politician deviating from his party’s platform as ‘not following the party trope.’ The second, in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, was the sentence ‘A Cameron Diaz character is not such a bad trope to model one’s life on.’ In Yiddish, a Torah reader in the synagogue who is proficient in cantillating the melody according to the notes is said ‘to follow the trop.’ Is there a connection?”

There is. I’m just not sure if it’s a close or a distant one.

I must confess that I have never seen or heard the word “trope” used in the sense in which Mr. Gruber reports encountering it. To me, a “trope” has always been pretty much what my dictionary says it is: “a figure of speech — a word, phrase, expression, or image that is used in a figurative way, usually for rhetorical effect.” Generally, I have come across it, or used it myself, in literary contexts, as in a sentence like “Blood is a frequent trope in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’” This is not, however, its meaning in the two sentences cited by Mr. Gruber.

“Trope,” then, has taken a new turn, in keeping with its meaning in ancient Greek, in which tropos signified a turn or direction, from the verb trepein, to turn. It also denoted a manner, fashion or mode, as it does in modern Greek — and, specifically, a musical mode, which is a particular melody or arrangement of notes in the ancient Greek scale. It was in this sense that it was borrowed by Latin, in which, now spelled tropus, it eventually became a technical term in the vocabulary of Catholic Church music. A tropus was an interpolation in, or an addition to, an already existing prayer, for which it formed a verbal and musical embellishment. Although such tropi at first consisted of only a few auxiliary words and notes, in time they developed into longer passages and, eventually, into independent prayers, songs and even popular ballads sung outside of church. In the end, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Tropes finally left the liturgical and religious ground altogether and wandered away from the spiritual to the profane field of songs of love, gambling, and drinking.” Thus, it was as a term for a musical or literary theme that could occur in any of various contexts that “trope” entered English in the 16th century.

There is no doubt that tropus is also the source of trop, the Yiddish word for what are known in Hebrew as ta’amei ha-mikra or ta’amim and in English as cantillations — the chant notes that accompany the weekly synagogue readings from both the Five Books of Moses and the Prophets. Although these notes may represent an old musical tradition going back to the time of the Second Temple, they were first written down as notations to the text in the Middle Ages, which made them similar to the tropi of church music. It was because of this analogy that tropus became a word used by Jews in the synagogue, probably first in France, from where it was carried to Central and Eastern Europe as Yiddish trop.

The written symbols for the cantillations, which are placed, like the Hebrew vowel points, above or below the syllables they govern, probably go back to early medieval times. Again like the vowel points, they do not appear in the parchment Torah scroll read from in the synagogue and are found only in printed Bibles, so a good Torah reader has to learn them by heart. Although following the trop is made easier by the fact that certain chant notes tend to occur in certain syntactical or grammatical situations, thus making it easier to remember what goes with what, it still calls for an excellent memory, and Torah readers who do not have one or have not done their homework often end up improvising or faking the trop.

Can this be the source of such expressions, like the two cited by Mr. Gruber, as “not following the party trope” or “a trope to model one’s life on”? It’s hard to say. One has to account somehow for the odd use of “trope” in such English sentences, and new Yiddish words and expressions are indeed constantly entering American (or, as the case may be, Canadian) English via Jewish speakers who first incorporate them into their own English and then introduce them to non-Jews. The possibility of a Jewish influence cannot, therefore, be automatically dismissed.

And yet “following the trop” is not, to the best of my knowledge, a Yiddish expression that has currency outside the synagogue, and I have never heard it used by American Jews in anything but its literal sense of chanting the Torah correctly. What, then, are the chances of its turning up, in an Anglicized version, in a non-Jewish political commentary or in The Globe and Mail? Probably not very great — no greater, in any case, than the possibility that the influencing factor is modern Greek (which also seems rather unlikely). Further research is called for, and if you are in a position to contribute to it, I urge you to do so.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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