Words

Draconian
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The Independent Online
Draconian

The Cullen Report said that a complete ban on handguns would be "draconian", and we all know what a draconian law is. It's a law with sharp teeth that will rip into transgressors; its very breath will sear them. Is not draco the Latin for a dragon? Yes, except that draconian, in this sense at least, has nothing to do with dragons. Draco, the Athenian aristocrat who flourished in the seventh century BC, was the first to codify the city's laws, and little is known about him, only that the laws he codified were believed to have included the death penalty for pilfering, and suchlike deterrents. This explanation is not nearly so pleasing as the other.

If the only thing we know about Draco is that he was draconian, there is not much for the imagination to feed on. When the word was first used - probably rather late in the 19th century, to go by the dictionary - the allusion must have been understood, and have had a bit of force; now it has practically none, because few learn ancient history, and if we didn't know the word we would probably never have heard of the shadowy old lawgiver, which is somehow the wrong way round, it seems to me.

However, at least he has acquired a sort of immortality. Solon was the man who repealed Draco's laws and brought justice to Athens, but who uses the word solonian? When someone says "churchillian" you can still hear the grumbly voice, however young you are, and imagine the bulldog jowls, but I wonder how soon it will be before people start describing a certain sort of orator as churchillian without the faintest idea who Churchill was. Or listening to one of those perfunctory breakfast-time conversations and calling it pinteresque, without having seen any of Harold's plays. Perhaps they do already.

Nicholas Bagnall

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