Use and Abuse Words Part 2: Travesty

According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s definition, “travesty” is a grotesque misrepresentation or imitation.

Tragically, many writers confuse the word “travesty” with the similar-sounding “tragedy” even though these two words have very different meanings. The definition of “tragedy” is the better known of the two: it refers to a serious accident, crime or catastrophe. Bizarrely, the misuse of “travesty” is so common, it’s twisting into almost a new meaning entirely. It’s often applied as a sadder/weirder version of a tragedy.

Recently, a journalist at a prominent Toronto newspaper described a Justin Bieber look-alike eating a burrito sideways as a travesty. Was the hungry doppelganger misrepresenting the way a burrito should be eaten or was he just eating it wrong?

The term travesty is often invoked after a hotly contested court trial, as in “a travesty of justice.” This makes sense as an unpopular decision by a judge could rightly be considered a poor imitation of the legal process. However, this phrase has become so overused that the justice part often gets dropped. Another legitimate new source published the headline “McClintic healing lodge transfer a travesty.” This sentence confuses what exactly is the travesty. The decision to transfer a violent criminal to a nicer facility, or the transfer itself?

Another headline makes even less sense: “World Food Day: Highlighting the travesty of food waste.” Early in the article, a spokesperson cites food waste as a travesty. Perhaps the writer didn’t question the spokesperson’s error and absorbed it into the editorial, with the resultant horrible headline. What is food waste imitating? Even the word tragedy wouldn’t quite fit here.

If you want to highlight an outcome that’s almost comically far from the original intent, “travesty” works well. A fine example in Belfast News Letter reads “IRC terror report is a feeble travesty from Planet Whitewash.”

So it seems a wide misunderstanding of the word has created a bit of a travesty out of travesty. This word is more likely to be applied to its figurative sense, as in “If you’re not one hundred percent sure what a word means, look it up before creating a travesty of your intended meaning.“ Literally, you could apply it to someone’s really bad Halloween costume–but you probably shouldn’t.

Christina Friend

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