Thursday 3 December 2009

On being a tragic

A correspondent writes to ask about the noun use of tragic, as in a Beatles tragic or an opera tragic, where it means 'someone who is intensely interested or absorbed in a topic'. She had used it unconsciously in a message to a US colleague, who didn't understand it, and she wonders how widespread it is.

My correspondent is from Australia, where it's quite a common usage - for example, all the instances of opera tragic I've found on Google come from Australia. A site called cricket-blog is headed 'a blog where an Australian cricket tragic talks Ashes' and goes on to say that this is the place 'where cricket tragics rant'. I've never come across the usage, singular or plural, outside that variety. I'm not surprised her American contact didn't get it. A British contact wouldn't have either. I've no idea if it has any usage outside Australia, and perhaps readers of this blog would let me know if they've encountered it elsewhere.

How it developed this meaning is a bit of a puzzle. Presumably it's like the reverse semantic shift we find in such words as wicked to mean 'great'. But when and how this shift took place with tragic isn't established. There are no references to the usage in the OED. All the noun uses of tragic there are related to the traditional meaning: the earliest use, in the late 16th century, meant 'a tragic actor'; then it was used for 'a tragic author'; later, it came to mean 'a tragic work of some kind' or 'a tragic event'. We find such usages as That was a miserable tragic and all the tragics you can think of. But all these earlier (and now obsolete) usages maintain the traditional sense of tragic.


Caroline Bowen said...

Nothing to do with Melpomene, then?

Annie said...

If the usage may not be recognised in the UK, certainly no chance I should ever encounter it in any form in Armenia, where BrE is what is taught and learned.

But I like the usage. Particularly, I entertain the association between the sense of 'someone intensely interested or absorbed in a topic' and the very ending of the word - ic. It remotely reminds me of the remarkable suffix -holic we add to nouns to form nouns expressing like sense.

Is 'tragic' used in Australia only in a positive sense?

Can't it possibly be a borrowing or imitative usage from another language, Professor?

Chaa006 said...

I have never encountered "tragic" in this sense before (native speaker of <Br.E>, early 60s), but suspect that it may be a deliberate extension of the current informal use of "sad" to mean "pitiable" (as in "he's a sad individual : spends his entire life goggling at the box"). In their current formal sense, I think that "sad" and "tragic" form a part of a continuum, so it would not be unreasonable to hypothesise that some Austalian creative speaker had used "sad" as his/her model.

John said...

A mere "cricket fan" is someone who enjoys watching or playing cricket. But a "cricket tragic" is someone who is so emotionally engaged with their team that a loss, injury, or even an unfavourable umpiring decision can have a significant emotional effect on them. Separating a "cricket tragic" from their game will induce severe withdrawal symptoms - spending time at a Christmas party cowering in a corner with a radio. It can be tragic to witness severe cases.

DC said...

As a noun, I think yes. But as an adjective, it has the usual range of senses.

I don't know of any other language which might be used as a source. If anyone has some ideas about this, do let us know.

DC said...

John's comment clearly suggests the way in which the meaning might have developed. When did it happen, though? Was it a young person's usage. to begin with, as with wicked and the others?

Barrie England said...

I have inquired among Facebook friends and can report that it is indeed found in Australia, as in ‘my husband is a cricket tragic', and it has also been heard in at least one English school.

the brown couch said...

This usage has been around in Australia for about twenty years but it's mostly used by bogans (think hillbillies). You can basically take it to mean that someone is so into something (usually something you can easily deprecate) that it's a tragic situation.

ie "Jimmy's an Oprah tragic".

Barrie England said...

My inquiries have also unearthed a new (to me) use of ‘sweet’, to mean something like ‘OK, thanks’, as in:

-Oh, I don't have a pen.
-Here, take mine.

Pyroclastic Flo said...

It reminds me a bit of the newer use of the adjective 'massive', which has been turned into a positive (collective) noun - as in, 'don't mess with the Bangor massive'. (Though I haven't checked if it was actually used in a similar sense in 'the olden days'.) Enjoying the use of 'tragic' where we might once have heard the word 'nut'!

DC said...

Judging by the searches I made on Google, it's gone well beyond the hillbilly setting now.

Caroline Bowen said...

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard is a self-described ‘cricket tragic’.

See, 'Stunned Mullets and Two-pot Screamers: A Dictionary of Australian
Colloquialisms' (Fifth Edition)by G.A. Wilkes

Caroline Bowen said...

Here's an unbogan Aussie Food Tragic

Patrick McMahon said...

I haven't heard this use of 'tragic', but it chimes with the use of 'sad' to describe someone who has really narrow interests and is perceived to have no life outside them.

Chris Jackson said...

I'm with Cha006 on this. I've certainly heard people in England being called for example .."not just sad, he's tragic". I think comedians would use it. I'd see the word tragic in cricket tragic as being adjectival in origin - cricket mad, cricket sad, cricket tragic.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an Australian, I've never heard of it, and suggest that - like many words - it's used almost exclusively by people within certain demographics (e.g. cricket followers, perhaps) and is virtually unknown to the rest of us.

(No, despite myth, not all Australians follow the cricket. Some even prefer language blogs!)

John said...

Searching the Google corpus for "Cricket Tragic" reveals usage in Australia back at least as far as 2001. (There are advanced search options to order by date.) If you were reading the sports pages of the Indian Tribune on September 11, 2001, you would see this reference:

Sports-mad Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a self-confessed “cricket tragic’’

While it's not necessarily common usage in Australia, I think that most Australians would know what it meant.

David Nash said...

I didn't realise until reading this that X tragic isn't also used in the UK. And I agree that "While it's not necessarily common usage in Australia, I think that most Australians would know what it meant." and that it has been around a decade or two, and not long enough to have made it into the 1980s AND. As an English friend observed to me, the noun comic is somewhat analogous, especially the way it has widened a little from 'comic actor' (from 1619 the OED says).

Unknown said...

I am Australian and didn't even realise till reading this that no one else uses this expression!
I wouldn't say it's exactly common, but most Australians know what it means. I don't think I have ever used it myself, but I certainly have heard it.
And I definitely don't think that 'X tragic' is meant in a positive sense, at least not entirely. It's more of a put-down, I suppose. Some people might call themselves 'cricket tragics' with a hint of pride, but I think the main idea is self-deprecating. To refer to oneself as a 'tragic' is to admit, 'Yes, I know it's ridiculous and tragic that I'm so obsessed with this, but I love it anyway.' Depending on who's calling whom tragic, it could be affectionate ribbing or really quite cruel, but there's always the implication that the subject's interest in X is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the table here but as an Australian who grew up with the development of this term, I think I can help.

My understanding of it is thus: when one knows too much about a particular topic, or is a little too interested in one thing (e.g. fashion; sport; cult sketch comedy shows) they are called 'sad'; I suppose in the context of 'a sad case'. It is always simplified to a phrase like 'He's a bit sad - he knows all the winning songs from Eurovision since 1966'.

That eventually became 'tragic' because I think we love to change things (I don't know about other English-speaking countries, but I can look back on the 1980s and 1990s and remember little turns of phrase like this that were used heavily at the time but then largely forgotten as we got bored with them and found new ones).

So 'sad' becomes 'tragic', and then we place the relevant obsession in front of it to describe what it is the person in question is obsessed over: 'Dan's a complete cricket tragic'. 'Dan' could probably tell you all the players' stats and the outcomes of every major match played this century. (Though interestingly, 'She's a real fashion tragic' can also mean 'she has absolutely no fashion sense'.)

I hope that adds a little clarity, even if it is a couple of months late!

Martina (Sydney, Australia)

Anonymous said...

I'm Aussie

I use the expression all the time!



Can use it with anything. As the author noted 'someone who is intensely interested or absorbed in a topic'. Too good!


Douglas C. said...

I'm neither British or Australian, but my mother was born in London and I had an Australian girlfriend for a time. The Aussie-style usage of "tragic" is not unknown in the UK in my experience, but the British are much more likely to use "anorak" in a somewhat similar fashion for a person obsessed with a particular subject, sport, team, musical style, musician, etc.