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Column: Understanding real definition of 'trendy' words used in media


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Sometimes a word sticks with me.

Maybe it’s because I like the way it sounds or what it reminds me of. Maybe it keeps cropping up in something I am reading or it is a trendy word used over and over by the media.

“Draconian” is a word that keeps jumping in front of me. For example: “If sequestration is not resolved in a bipartisan way, Draconian cuts in the budget will automatically kick in.” The word seems to be thrown about quite a bit these days.

Come to think of it, besides “Draconian,” there are at least two other regularly used words, “sequestration” and “bipartisan,” that I find interesting in that example sentence.

In context of its recent usage, I figured “sequestration” meant something like “automatic decisions made about a budget,” but just to be sure, I looked it up. The dictionary tells me “sequester” (Actually “budget sequester”) is a “U.S. legal procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered.” Another use of the word, “jury sequestration,” means “The isolation of a jury.”

OK, I recognize that from TV cop/lawyer shows. But “sequestration” can also mean “the seizure of property for creditors or the state.”

It all kind of makes sense to me now. Politicians isolate themselves in a room so they can cut from the budget a tiny bit of the huge amount of money they previously seized from us taxpayers.

“Bipartisan” is another word bandied about these days. I take it to mean what you get when two opposing sides work together to achieve a goal. That is essentially what my dictionary says: “consisting of or supported by two political parties.”

The earliest reference of the use of the word is from 1905. I wonder how people described the phenomenon before that. The prefix “bi” means “two” but “partisan” has a couple of meanings. One is “partial to a specific party or person,” but another sounds very warlike as in “carried on by military partisans or guerrillas.”

So am I wrong to be worried that a bipartisan group might mean two political parties coming together to conduct some form of guerrilla warfare? Against whom? I don’t even want to think about it.

But back to “Draconian.” The word should be capitalized because it is made from a man’s name, Draco the Lawgiver.

He was an Athenian who first put the code of laws of Athens in written form, the city’s first constitution. Draco wrote the law code sometime between 620 and 622 BC and put it in a public place so all people would know what the law said.

“Draconian” means “exceedingly harsh; very severe.” This is because Draco was what you might call a no-nonsense disciplinarian, a one-strike-and-you’re-out type guy. A debtor could become the slave of the person to whom he owed money, and even minor offenses were punishable by death.

The Roman historian Plutarch writes, “When asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, Draco answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it and had no greater punishment for more important ones.”

Draco probably deserves to be have his name associated with a severe and harsh action. Still, he did a lot for the advancement of civilization by codifying and establishing regular processes of law.

Before Draco, the law was pretty much based on blood feuds and arbitrary decisions by the rich and powerful. Thank goodness things aren’t like that today.

According to one source, Americans for Prosperity, if the sequestration goes into effect, $85 billion will be cut from the projected $3.5 trillion federal budget for 2013. That’s a cut of 2.4 percent. Hmm.

Maybe “Draconian” is itself too draconian a word for such a cut. Perhaps those who use it are being a little hyperbolic—which is also a very interesting word.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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