Has anybody else out there had it up to here with "tragedy"? Does anybody else gag each time we journalists and other abusers of the language, whether in print or over the air, inflate an ordinary human loss into the stuff of Sophoclean drama by describing it as "tragic"? Does anybody else wince at the debasement of a noble word into what Philip Howard, the British writer, has called a "weasel word" -- an unctuous, mortuarial wet blanket with which to smother the calamitous and the trivial alike?
No doubt it is tilting at windmills, as most grammatical criticism is these days, but "tragedy" should not be allowed to join the lexicon of euphemism without, if not a fight, at least a noisy and ill-tempered protest. The straw that broke my camel's back appeared last week, when in a single news story "tragic" was used twice, in both cases inaccurately. The first described the death from sudden illness of a young woman; the second, the disappearance from her household of a teen-age girl. These occurrences were many things, none of them pleasant, but they were not "tragic."
To say this is in no way to belittle events that have caused much pain and distress to the families involved, but to plead for accurate grammatical usage. Although too many dictionaries are now giving a second definition of "tragedy" as synonymous with "calamity" or "disaster," it is the first definition that counts -- and the first definition has nothing to do with what people mean these days when they talk about "tragedy." Here is how the first definition of the word is given by the American Heritage Dictionary, a definition that closely parallels those to be found in other responsible dictionaries:
"1. A dramatic or literary work depicting a protagonist engaged in a morally significant struggle ending in ruin or profound disappointment, specifically: a. A classical verse drama in which a noble protagonist is brought to ruin essentially as a consequence of some extreme quality which is both his greatness and his downfall. b. A Renaissance or modern drama like the classical model in representing terrible struggle and calamity, but freer in style and choice of protagonist. c. Any play or narrative that seriously treats of calamitous events and has an unhappy but meaningful ending."
Only in the second definition does American Heritage get close to the word as it is now so loosely used, and even then it is with a highly significant kicker: "2. Any dramatic, disastrous event, especially one of some moral significance." The kicker, of course, is "moral significance." Even in this relatively permissive definition of the word, for a "calamity" to be a "tragedy" it must possess moral ("Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character; pertaining to the discernment of good and evil") significance, a quality to be found in almost nothing that we casually describe as "tragic" these days.
When Mary Decker took a tumble last summer and lost her shot at a gold medal, the event was, incredibly, almost universally described as "tragic," even though it was neither calamitous nor charged with moral meaning. If a house burns and a family is forced to find shelter, nine times out of 10 the evening-news anchor will describe the fire as a "tragedy." If a basketball team loses in the last few seconds and is eliminated from the NCAA championship, someone -- a coach, a player, a reporter, someone -- is going to haul out the crying machine and bemoan the "tragedy."
Even when events really are calamitous and disastrous, they are rarely tragic. The sinking of the Titanic was many terrible things, but it was not a tragedy. Neither were the attack on the American Marines in Beirut, the collision of two jumbo jets at Tenerife, the fire at the Coconut Grove, or the collapse of a hotel walkway in Kansas City. All of these events were genuinely awful, and the human suffering they exacted was indeed grievous, but they were not tragic. Not, at least, if you believe that words should mean what they mean.
The unhappy truth, though, is that most people don't -- and we journalists, who ought to be guardians of the language, encourage this indifference to simple grammatical accuracy. Routinely we use "presently," which means "soon," as a synonym for "currently"; "hopefully," which means "in a hopeful manner," as a synonym for "it is to be hoped"; "like," which means "similar to," as a synonym for "as if"; "interface," which is computer jargon for "connect," as a synonym for "relate."
When we do this we are not, as the permissive would have us believe, participating in the natural evolution of the language; we are, out of ignorance or indifference, corrupting perfectly good words by distorting, and usually debasing, their true meaning. The natural evolution of the language may be jarring, but often it is for the better; the language is stronger with the addition of such relatively recent coinages as "rip-off," "cop-out," "glitz," "drugola" and "wimp." These words have clear, specific meanings; the day they begin to be distorted, they will be headed for the same fate now in store for "hopefully," "presently" and "tragedy."
Were "tragedy" to be used in its classic and most accurate sense, I can think of only one event of recent years that qualifies for it. The Vietnam war was tragic; no quotation marks necessary. This judgment has nothing to do with whether one believes the United States to have been right or wrong in doing what it did in Vietnam; right or wrong, the war exposed the American tragic flaw -- a moral hubris that caused us to enter the war in a spirit of missionary zeal and that brought us down when it blinded us to the realities of the situation we encountered. Vietnam was tragic both in this deepest sense and in the more liberal one as well; it was, no doubt about it, a "dramatic, disastrous event, especially one of some moral significance."
No other relatively recent events that can be similarly described come readily to mind, yet all about us "tragedy" is in the air. Thoughtlessly, we routinely apply it to occurrences for which there are other words, words that far more accurately describe what has happened: "calamity," "disaster," "heartbreak," "catastrophe," "adversity," "misfortune," "hardship." Like these words, "tragedy" has its own clear meaning; since it is a fine, honorable word, with a long and distinguished history, it is a pity that we cannot trouble ourselves to observe that meaning.