Travesties and farces

One sports headline quoted someone calling the end of the Australia v China women’s basketball match, in which China was awarded a foul with with 0.6 seconds remaining, a “travesty”. Another quoted someone calling the end of the men’s high jump, in which Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi decided to share the gold medal rather than jump off for gold and silver, a “farce”. I’m not familiar enough with the rules of either sport to be able to comment on the sports angle, but I’m familiar enough with words to know that travesty and farce were both originally theatrical words.

Travesties (trans + vestire) were ridiculous parodies of serious works. The actors may or may not have cross-dressed (compare transvestite). Farces (farcīre, farsus, stuffed) were “fillings”, light, humorous plays between more serious works, or standalones (which sometimes made serious points about eg the relationship between masters and servants, or men and women). Farce still (possibly just) bears its original meaning (“My new play is a farce”), but travesty doesn’t (“My new play is a travesty”). 

This is another example, if one is needed, that the meanings of words change over time. People who say “This word means that (and can only mean that), because the etymology of X means that” are almost certainly wrong. Silly people. (I thought I’d blogged about silly before, but apparently not.)

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2 thoughts on “Travesties and farces

  1. The word “parody” has multiple senses as well, historically. While it usually refers to a humorous variant on some cultural entity, it also possessed a strict meaning: a song based on an existing musical work but with a different set of words, and no humor implied (in the pre-Classical era).

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  2. But ‘the Olympic marathon ended in parody’ or ‘My latest play is a parody’ don’t sound quite the same. An example of an athletics parody (in perhaps the best-known sense of the word) is the 100-meter mosey, per Gary Larson.

    I first encountered ‘parody’ in the serious sense in the form of parody masses, which are by people like Josquin des Pres and not PDQ Bach.

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