A literal tragedy.

Photographer: W.&D. Downey/Getty Images

It's No Tragedy that 'Tragedy' Is Overused

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The ambushes of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas were still breaking news when my Twitter feed began filling up with fury as people lambasted the media for referring to what had happened as “a tragedy.” The same thing happened after the horror in Nice. And after the slaughter in Orlando. The impact of the word “tragedy,” we are told, has been dulled by overuse. It is too small to encompass our loss. Better, says the Twittersphere, to say “attack” or “murder.”

The implication of the criticisms is that the word “tragedy” should be reserved for terrible events that involve no malevolence. A bridge falling is a tragedy. A tsunami is a tragedy. A sudden death from natural causes is a tragedy. But this argument has the definition backward.

Like everyone else, I mourn for the victims of these acts of viciousness. At the same time, the language maven in me must answer the criticism. “Tragedy” is exactly the right term for each of these incidents. If the word seems dulled by overuse, that is a function of the era, not an insufficiency in the language.

The word “tragedy” derives, somewhat mysteriously, from a Greek word meaning “goat song.” Most of us, however, likely had our first serious encounter with the term when a teacher told us, sometime around the seventh or eighth grade, that in Shakespearean comedies everyone gets married at the end, and in Shakespearean tragedies everyone dies at the end. Then in high school, or perhaps freshman English in college, we were introduced to the classical Greek theater, and learned that tragedy occurs when great men and women become too hubristic and must be struck down by the gods.

I mention all of this because I suspect that one of the problems we tend to have with the word is precisely its association with a loose and perhaps abstract academic analysis. And yet the origins matter.

In an essay defending the theater against critics who considered it frivolous, Sir Walter Scott argued that a nation needs the tragic stage. Tragedy, he wrote, rests on “that strong instinctive and sympathetic curiosity, which tempts men to look into the bosoms of their fellow-creatures, and to seek, in the distresses or emotions of others, the parallel of their own passions.” This sympathetic curiosity, in turn, leads to the inculcation of socially valuable virtues.

Through most of the 19th century, the word “tragedy” continued to be associated overwhelmingly with the theater. Plays had the word in the title. Literature began to borrow the word in book titles, most likely so that browsers would know at once what sort of story might occupy a particular volume.

The term also had other uses. In 1849, for example, Punch magazine referred to the potato famine as a “national tragedy.” But its satirical article borrowed from traditional tragic literature in describing a “prophecy” of “future agonies.” That same year, more than one journalist chose the word “tragedy” in recounting Astor Place Riot in New York, in which more than 20 people died. But the usage was deliberate and relevant, tied to the fact that the riot began at an opera house.

It was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 that began to bring the word "tragedy" into widespread use in something like its current sense. Pastors and essayists borrowed freely from Greek drama as they sought to illustrate the nation’s pain. “Slavery is the assassin,” William J. Potter, a prominent Unitarian minister, argued immediately after the murder. “The awful laws of dramatic unity, stricter in the actual than in any fictitious tragedy, could not spare it this result.”

Over the next few decades, the term “tragedy” came into more common use to refer to an event that was sudden and horrific -- and, in most cases, done willfully. Even then, storms and floods rarely were called tragic. But murders and wars often were. And as the years passed and familiarity with classical theater declined, the link between calling an event tragic and invoking the trappings of Greek theater dissolved. A tragedy ceased to be the horrific and inevitable confluence of dark events. It became a name for a bad thing that somebody did to somebody else.

Nowadays, there need not even be a doer. Unexpected death, whether by accident or disease, is described routinely as tragic. The curmudgeonly grammar prescriptivist in me has no quarrel with this. But one can understand how, with the word in such common use, those who find themselves dismayed by terrible events would seek a different term.

And yet I believe the word “tragedy” should be preserved. Certainly its application to terrorist attacks or ambushes of police is correct in the traditional sense. In a tragedy, as the tension builds, an aura of impending disaster coils round the audience until there occurs an explosion of violence so swift and debilitating that it raises fundamental questions about the world. Surely, that is what we see today.

Our problem isn’t the overuse of the word tragedy, but how we let tragedies affect us. Walter Scott was right. We should use tragedy to build reserves of virtue that make us stronger and more unified. Or we can instead be cynical, allowing tragedy to set us at war with each other. Whatever word we choose, that’s the choice we face.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net