What do trochee and spondee mean?

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s words: trochee and spondee.

When I was in university, I was invited to join the honours program in English and Political Science. The trouble was, I couldn’t do both. I had to chose between them.

Feeling like a mother (William Syron’s Sophie Zawistowska, perhaps?) forced to name her best-loved child, I tormented myself and interviewed professors, one of whom called me a “compulsive overachiever.”  Finally, I settled on poli sci, a choice I’ve never regretted until today.

Why today? It relates to the words trochee and spondee. I read them in the novel, Look at Me by Jennifer Egan, and had absolutely no idea what they meant. No dim bells rang. No faint lights shone. Their definition was blank to me.

Here is the sentence in which the words appeared:

She listened, trying to parse her husband’s mood from the meter of his tread, the trochees and spondees he made while climbing the four tiers of steps to their apartment. 

I wondered if the words perhaps had something to do with a technical name for a stair’s riser. No, it turns out the words are poetical. A trochee is a word in which the metre is stressed/non-stressed (examples: happy, hammer, double, injure, shatter, slacker, widow). This makes it the exact opposite of an an iamb (Shakespeare wrote his plays in iambic pentametre  — at least I remembered that!). Examples: behold, amuse, Noel, inset, employ. Finally, a spondee is stressed/stressed: football, mayday, heartbreak, shortcake, dumbbell, race-track.

Looking at the etymologytrochee comes from the French trochée, which is from the Latin trochaeus, which is from the Greek trokhaios, meaning “a running, spinning (foot).” Spondee makes a similarly circuitous route:  from Old French spondee, from Latin spondeus, from Greek spondees.

I think Egan’s use of the language in this fashion is rather clever and only wish I’d known enough to understand it right away.

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