Monday, November 30, 2009

Tragedy: appropriate term or not?

Kathryn Jean Lopez prints a reader's email:
The word "tragedy" implies that it was a random occurence, unavoidable bad luck or simple misfortune. It fails to capture the intent to harm behind the resulting deaths and minimizes the motivation, without which, no "tragedy" could have occured. I've heard it used too often in describing 9/11 and most recently the Fort Hood killings.

Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy. The tsunami of 2004 was a tragedy. The Space Shuttle Challenger was a tragedy.

9/11, Fort Hood and the assassination of the the Lakewood Police Officers were horrific acts of violence. They were not tragedies.

I'm tired of this. I don't know how it started but every time someone uses the word "tragedy" or "tragic" in relation to these "horrific acts of violence," someone else feels the need to demonstrate education or intellect by nit-picking the usage. Like this e-mailer did.

Except that he's wrong. "Tragedy" doesn't imply randomness or luck. In its greek origins, it typically implied the operation of Nemesis - the class "Tragic Hero" is brought down by his own hubris. Obviously, that doesn't apply to any of these situations, but it doesn't apply to Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Tsunami, either. (Challenger and Columbia are a bit closer - think Icarus - but not really right either.)

But regardless of its roots, that's not the way that the word is used in modern English. If we go to the OED1, the first two definitions of tragedy refer to literary forms. The third definition, the first usage not related to a literary form or convention, is the way that Huckabee used it, the way most people use it, which is to describe "an unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster." There is no part of that definition which the slaughter of the Lakewood officers fails to meet. It was certainly "an unhappy or fatal real life." It was absolutely "a dreadful calamity or disaster" for the friends and relatives of those men. You have public servants in the prime of life, fathers of young children, cut down by violence - that's not a tragedy?

I don't know where this perception came from that "tragedy" is only appropriate if there are no actual human agents directly causing the "unhappy or fatal event," but it isn't accurate, and it has gotten exceedingly tiresome to have people spitting it out every time we get an event like this one. I probably share many of this e-mailers opinions of the former Arkansas Governor, but there's nothing whatsoever wrong or inappropriate in describing this event as a tragedy. People are trying to load meanings on to the word which just aren't there. An event can be a crime and a tragedy at the same time.

1 - Oxford English Dictionary

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