Draco’s legacy

I dropped in on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show this week, hoping he would talk about his latest brush with the law. Instead, he was discussing flag burning and The New York Times — the standard fare. Limbaugh, however, did use one of my favorite words: draconian. Limbaugh used the adjective to describe a campaign-finance law in Vermont that placed limits on spending and contributions.

“Draconian,” as defined by my Dashboard dictionary, means “excessively harsh and severe.” The adjective is usually applied to “laws” and similar nouns. “Draconian” comes from Draco, a lawgiver of ancient Greece known for recommending tough, even cruel, penalties. (His work was revised significantly by Solon, the man whose name is to blame for modern headlines such as “Solons mull plan.”) Merriam-Webster mentions Draco in its definition: “of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him.”

Here are some “draconian” things in recent news stories:

  • The Kalamazoo Gazette in Michigan uses the word to describe fees assessed for driving offenses. The headline writer picked up on that idea: “Draconian fees make lawbreakers of the poor.”
  • A medical Web site in Australia uses the word to describe President Bush’s stand on stem-cell research.
  • A Turkish news service calls a plan to impose fees on demonstrations Draconian.

Because of its pejorative and highly subjective nature, “draconian” is a word to be used cautiously. In news stories, it may reflect a bias by the reporter or headline writer. What may be excessively harsh to one person may not be to another. In editorials and other opinion writing, it’s often the perfect word to use, however. It’s also a good one for everyday conversation, maybe because it’s simply fun to say.

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