Language Non-fiction

Irony rescues Drama

There is a phenomenon in linguistics that I cannot remember the name of. It happens when a young, contemporary word slowly expands its usage and meaning until it replaces its predecessor. In other words, an offspring overthrows its parent. It isn’t universally true, but it is deliciously borne of the dynamics of culture, making it something of a moving target and not easily broken down by rules or historical facts (as linguists would like). Have I lost everyone? Case study coming up.

The word “drama” has, as we can expect, roots in Greek. Originally taken from the verb “to act,” i.e. to perform an action, a noun was created that described this very fundamental concept of carrying out something through something else. “Drama,” in its lineage, speaks to the very nature of human existence: we are agents of change.

Theatrical scene on a Greek amphora, c. 4th century BC. Image credit Mary Harrsch, via Flickr, license CC BY 2.0.

In the early 19th century, as live music and acting began to find common ground, there came an increase in the number of shows using the cuff-and-collar origins of opera, chamber concerti, etc. but with a populist spin. The difference between these and what we normally call “folk music” is that this type of performance was subversive, appealing to the growing middle class who were educated enough to acknowledge the significance of highbrow music but were more prone to make merry in local watering holes.

A gap began to grow between “serious” and “popular” forms of the performing arts. In the latter case, music played the role of accompanying actors. Sometimes they read poetry, sometimes they acted scenes, often they were loosely structured, more sketches than whole narrative constructions– sound familiar? It was the hip-hop of its day. Drama plus an incidental melody became known as “melodrama” (Greek: melo+drama = song+acting). Since this was regarded as lowbrow entertainment, the reputation stuck.

“A Tale Of Mystery” by dramatist Thomas Holcroft, 1802. One of the first English melo-drames. Image via

This model stayed quite adaptable through developments in film, recording, and gathering. Once the original types of performance fell out of fashion, things like films replaced them, retaining short narrative structure and the reliance on music. But the name remained. Fast forward to today, and the definition of “melodrama” is simply a sensationalist performance of any kind. That definition appears above the original in the dictionary. And now the final step: distilled in this episode of Laguna Biotch from Mad TV.

The word “drama” here is now used to describe a social situation with an excess of sensationalism like plot twists and emotional outbursts. “Drama” has replaced “melodrama.” It’s not a simple shortening of the latter. Perhaps it is a way of injecting more meaning into our words by reviving or reappropriating existing words. In this instance, we need a word to meaningfully describe our obsession with teenage social mores, which up close are frequently theater-worthy. To reenact that theater, to give ourselves the agency to observe and critique that world, we have to give new agency to old words. This is a form of irony, where perhaps an earnest presentation of the actions conceals a subversive and critical undertone. Irony ranks high among modernity’s pastimes, and here it comes to the rescue of language, giving new life to “drama” by injecting it with the meaning of “melodrama.”

My secret thanks to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, hosted by Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, which was in my mind throughout this writing. The way they structure and unfold their linguistic research was my template.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, urbanist, and researcher based in New York City.

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