Etymology of Tragedy

A tragedy is a destructive, chaotic, deadly, distressful or ghastly event that causes grief and sadness. A good percentage of what we consider tragedies often involve human death. Stalin once said that the death of a single man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is merely a statistic.


This one’s slightly complicated, so read closely. To understand the etymology of tragedy, we travel all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Ancient Greek word tragoidós (τραγῳδός), which is a combination of trágos (τράγος) and aoidós (ἀοιδός).

Trágos means the age of puberty, but it was also the Ancient Greek word used to describe a male goat.

Aoidós comes from the Ancient Greek word aeído (ἀείδω)—meaning I sing; aoidós means singer.

So, the combination of these two words, tragoidós (literally “goat singer”), soon evolved into yet another related word: tragoidía (τραγῳδία). The second part of this word means song, and thus literally means goat song.

Still with me? It gets easier now: tragoidía evolved into the Latin tragoedia, a word used in theaters that meant tragedy. Tragoedia then evolved into the Old French tragedie and the Middle English tragedie. That’s where we got the word from.

The whole goat thing possibly a reference to the Dorians (in 500BC, the Dorians and the Ionians were the most powerful force within Greece). Their theatrical plays involved satyrs, which are mythical goat-like creatures. The whole goat connection is heavily disputed, so take this last paragraph with a grain of salt as nobody really knows for sure why tragedy is related to goats.

Tragedy in Other Languages

Albanian: tragjedi

Catalan: tragèdia

Danish: tragedie

Dutch: tragedie

French: tragédie

Galician: traxedia

German: Tragödie

Hungarian: tragédia

Italian: tragedia

Norwegian: tragedie

Polish: tragedia

Portuguese: tragédia

Romanian: tragedie

Spanish: tragedia

Swedish: tragedi


Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.