A Quixotic tilt at cavalier language

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The Independent Online

I have received several interesting letters about our present government, and think they are challenging enough to warrant printing.

From Mr Tom Paxtree

Sir, Am I the only one to find the policies of Mr David Blunkett, our Home Secretary, a little too brusque to be effective? By putting into effect regulations which alienate whole sections of society, he may achieve the short-term object of preventing terrorism but he is almost certainly preparing a seedbed for future terrorists to grow in. I wish he would think twice before he inflicts such draconian measures on us.

yrs etc

From Professor Charles Wagtree

Sir, It is not often that I come out of my ivory tower and engage in public debate, but when you have been a professor of ancient Greek history for as long as I have, there comes a time when you can no longer bear to hear the misuse of the word "draconian".

Draco, it may surprise your readers to learn, was a real-life Athenian lawmaker who, around 600 BC, decided that far too much retribution was left in the hands of private individuals and that punishment should be the business of the state. He thus enacted a series of state penalties for crimes. If this is being "high-handed, insensitive", which is what "draconian" has come to mean, then I am sorry but I must disagree, especially in today's society, when retribution seems to be drifting back into private hands. (I refer of course to the prevalence of actions for malpractice.) To hijack the word "draconian" for this seems pretty cavalier to me.

yrs etc

From Sir Thomas Critchendean

Sir, Professor Wagtree may or may not be right about "Draconian", but he is wrong about "cavalier". We at the Restoration of Monarchy Society have long fought against the use of this word to mean "off-hand, brusque, ungentlemanly", etc. If the cavaliers were anything at all, in contrast to the Roundheads, it was gentlemanly, gentle and romantic. There is something positively Orwellian about this misuse of language.

yrs etc

From Mrs Dorothy Grindle

Sir, Call me quixotic if you like, but may I ask if it is too late to prevent the use of the word "Orwellian" to refer to nothing but George Orwell?

Orwell was very good on the subject of double-think, which is ironic when you think that Orwell was not his name at all, but borrowed from a perfectly good river in Suffolk. We at the East Anglian River Preservation Society feel that "Orwellian" has been stolen from us. If I refer to "Orwellian tide patterns" do I mean something from 1984? I most certainly do not!

yrs etc

From Mr Antonio Gaudado

Sir, "Call me quixotic if you like", says Mrs Grindle, in the previous letter. No, I do not call her "quixotic", if by that she means "hopelessly idealistic". In the great novel by Cervantes, Don Quijote was certainly over-idealistic, but it was not meant seriously - it was a satirical stroke by Cervantes.

It is like when you British compare someone stubborn to King Canute trying to stop the waves - always there will be a letter from someone else saying that Canute did not try to stop the waves! And now you have a letter from me, saying that "quixotic" is used wrongly!

Coming back to your British government, I do not think the right word is "draconian". I think it is sufficiently opaque to be termed "Byzantine".

yrs etc

From Professor Charles Wagtree

Sir, Hello, yes, it's me again, the old Greek professor! Byzantium is not really my field, but I do think that the use of "Byzantine" to mean "hideously complex" is an over-simplification. If Byzantium was so over-organised, how come it lasted centuries longer than the Roman half of the Empire...?

Miles Kington writes: Thank you for your letters. I am afraid that's all we have space for today. But do keep writing in to me!

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