Tragedy vs. Travesty


drama masks

Tragedy and travesty sound alike, but they are nothing like synonyms. I’ve found that many people use the word travesty when they really mean tragedy, though no one ever gets it wrong the other way.

Both words carry a negative connotation. They are normally used when describing a bad, unjust, or disheartening situation.

Both words have literary origins. Tragedy comes from the Latin tragõidia and originally referred to a play with an unhappy ending. Travesty referred originally to an intentionally grotesque parody — a play that pokes deliberate fun at a particular work or type of play.

The words are used more broadly now, but their definitions are still closely related to their dramatic origins. A tragedy today can be any unfortunate or disastrous occurrence, and a travesty is an absurd misrepresentation or mockery of anything.

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So, the common expression a “travesty of justice” means not simply a terrible result of an attempt at justice, but a mockery or parody of justice. Thus, to say that the war in Afghanistan, for example, is a tragedy is different from saying it is a travesty, even though both statements may, in one’s opinion, be true. Saying it’s a tragedy means the outcome is unhappy, even horrific. Saying it’s a travesty means it is an ugly mockery of what war is or should be.

A trial where justice is talked about, but not carried out, is certainly a travesty. If it results in the death or imprisonment of an innocent man, it is a tragedy as well.

If your team loses in the Super Bowl, it may seem a tragedy, but if the game was played according to the rules, it is not a travesty.

A hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami is a tragedy, but not a travesty.

A mocking portrayal of a presidential speech on Saturday Night Live is a travesty, but not a tragedy.


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Andrew

    Appreciate the blog. I’m an English teacher, and I just used it incorrectly. (I love it when I look things up after I I mess them up.)

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko09-04-2014

      I love hearing that Andrew! Have a great school year.

  2. andrea simmons
    andrea simmons06-07-2014

    How grateful I am, that persons , such as yourself, who take the time and energy to thoughtfully distinguish such critical differences amognst seemimgly identical words exhists. Without such careful consideration being made, addressed or illustrated, our mistaken forsaken world in which weall coexhist would continously keep slipping off towards the wrong direction at an even greater or more rapid speed, I will make sure to read more of your blogs and I thank you for using your mind and sharing your thoughts online, take care

  3. Mya

    I have heard so many people use travesty incorrectly but every time I’d like to help them clear up their vocabulary I haven’t been able to. Mostly because I didn’t know the exact meaning of the word in the first place, but also because I didn’t know a good way to explain the difference with adequate exmples. Thank you very much!

  4. Maran

    Thank you!
    I was writing a blog post and needed a quick distinction between the two words and our pal google brought you up 🙂
    From this short sample of your writing I think I’m gonna like getting to know you.
    be well,

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-30-2013

      Good old Google. I’m glad he’s introduced us. 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-30-2013

      What’s your blog address, Maran? I’m curious.

  5. Ruben

    Thanks for the clarification. I’ve been using the word travesty incorrectly all along.

    Great webiste.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-19-2013

      You’re not alone, Ruben — that’s why I wrote this. 🙂

      Thanks for the encouraging words!

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