Words: Draconian adj.

William Hartston
Thursday 27 August 1998 23:02 BST

ON THE Today programme on Radio 4 the other morning, the new anti- terrorist measures in Ireland were described as "draconian". Or was it "Draconian"?

These are two distinct words, differing only in whether the first letter is capitalised or not. With a small "d", draconian (from the Latin and Greek words for a dragon or snake) means dragon-like. With a capital letter, however, Draconian refers to Draco the law-giver, an Athenian politician of the seventh century BC who gave the city-state it first penal code, which was noted for its severity.

With both words evoking fire-breathing harshness, the two words have merged into one. All true purists, however, take care to differentiate between Draconian laws and draconian mothers-in-law.

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