Q&A: Tragedy vs travesty

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re exploring tragic circumstances…

Q: Hi AWC. What’s the difference between “tragedy” and “travesty”? They seem the same to me.

A: These two words might look and sound similar, but they’re actually quite different.

Q: Hmmm. I often see them used interchangeably.

A: Yeah, that’s wrong. In fact, maybe you’ve seen people use “travesty” as a harsher version of a “tragedy”?

Q: Yes exactly! Something about the sound of the word that makes it worse somehow. “It was an absolute travesty!” and so on.

A: The truth is a little different. Let’s start with “tragedy” – which evolved from the “Greek tragedy” – originally called a “tragodia” (“goat song”) – a dramatic play or poem with an unhappy ending, performed by actors in goat skins.

Q: It’s all Greek to me…

A: Quite. The word “tragedy” still relates to these dramatic performances. Although it also came to mean a more generic disaster or bad event around the start of the 16th century. The adjective “tragic” followed some forty years later.

Q: So the word came along just in time for Shakespeare to write a bunch of tragedies?

A: That’s right. Ten of his plays are considered “tragedies” – including most of the famous ones like Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, Othello and of course, Romeo and Juliet.

Q: Those crazy teens. A simple first aid course could have prevented that ending…

A: Well anyway, if you imagine those theatrical masks, then “tragedy” is most definitely the sad face.

Q: Sure, makes sense. 

A: And so we come to “travesty”. A newer word, turning up in the 1670s and originally also used to define a performance. But this one was more the happy face mask in response to a tragedy.

Q: Really? Explain.

A: Original “travesty” plays were described as “a literary burlesque of a serious work”. Essentially a parody of a tragedy, where actors would dress and act in absurd or ridiculous fashion for exaggerated comic effect.

Q: Wow. But surely that definition expanded?

A: Well, it did escape the bounds of a burlesque literary performance, yes. However, a “travesty” continues to be characterised – as per Macquarie Dictionary – as a “any grotesque or debased likeness or imitation”. Basically something that makes a mockery out of something else. “A travesty of justice” for example.

Q: Ahhhh okay. So the emphasis is more on being a distorted version of something and not an outright disaster?

A: Yes. Now, the origins of “travesty” are very clear and quite curious. The word originated from the French “travesti” and Italian “travestire” – both meaning “to disguise”. 

Q: Okay. So what?

A: Let us finish. The “vestire” part meant simply “to clothe” and English would in the early 20th century go on to adapt the “tra” part back to its original Latin form of “trans” – meaning across or beyond.

Q: Oh! 

A: That’s right. The word “transvestite” debuted in 1922 meaning “a person with a strong desire to dress in clothing of the opposite sex” but even a century earlier, the word “travestiment” had already evolved from travesty to mean a similar thing. Today however, the two words “travesty” and “transvestite” live fairly separate lives.

Q: I wonder if anyone in the Harry Potter books ever had to deal with a travesty?

A: Don’t go there. 

Q: Okay. So, there are really two different areas for each – a performance definition and a generic one.

A: Correct. In the performance sense, a “tragedy” is what Macquarie Dictionary defines as “a dramatic composition of serious or sombre character, with an unhappy ending”. While a “travesty” is “a literary composition characterised by burlesque or ludicrous treatment of a serious work or subject”.

Q: And the more generic sense?

A: A “tragedy” is of course a dreadful event or disaster that results in sadness, injury or destruction. While a “travesty” is more of a distorted or cheap imitation of something – often applied to the debasement of something held high, such as justice, rules, ideals and so on. 

Q: So while some travesties will be a tragedy, they’re not really the same thing.

A: That’s right! To illustrate this, Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers an example where both words are used side by side: It is a travesty and a tragedy that so many people would be denied the right to vote.” 

Q: Other examples?

A: Sure. An earthquake where hundreds die is a tragedy, but not a travesty. However a political debate where the rules are not followed could be described as a travesty (and also a tragedy for democracy). 

Q: Thanks for clearing that up! Tragically, we’ve reached the end of this discussion. I’m going to go now and have tea with my friend Travis…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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