Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Keep Using That Word...

One of those words you hear people use that you’re pretty sure they don’t really understand: draconian. Basically we understand it to mean harsh or cruel (like the aptly named Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter’s world). But when I heard it on the radio today, it struck me as inappropriately used. So I googled the word and the derivation.

Draco was an Athenian statesman more than 600 BC, who wrote laws down, apparently for the purpose of making them less arbitrary, so redress of grievances would be available to any literate citizen. That doesn’t seem harsh or cruel. He also identified the difference between homicide and involuntary manslaughter, which is a good thing for the law to consider. But then he decided slavery was a good punishment for defaulting on a debt, and many minor crimes merited the death penalty. I didn’t come across examples of these minor crimes, so I’m guessing petty theft. So it was cruel punishment beyond the heinousness of the crime that the word draconian applies to.

So when you hear someone debating the budget battle in Congress, and they accuse the Republicans—who suggest a $61 billion cut in a $3.8 trillion budget that is nearly $1.7 trillion out of balance just this year—of wanting draconian cuts, you need to do your best Inigo Montoya impression and say: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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