The Grammarphobia Blog

A serpentine etymology

Q: I’ve been hearing the term “draconian” used a lot to describe brutal budget cuts. It’s the latest buzz word designed to get people upset and call them to action. I’d love to know your take on the use of this term.

A: Both “draconian” and its earlier form, “draconic,” are derived from the Athenian legislator Draco, who in the 7th century BC established a set of brutal laws so extreme that even minor offenses (idleness and petty theft, for instance) were punishable by death.

Draco’s legal code was reformed by Solon in the 6th century BC, but his cruelty has survived in the adjective “draconian,” which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines as exceedingly harsh or very severe.

The first citation for “draconic” in the Oxford English Dictionary is by Peter A. Motteux in a 1708 translation of works by Rabelais: “Any Law so rigorous and Draconic.”

In 1872, John Yeats used the term in a discussion of human sacrifice by the Carthaginians: “Their religion reflected its character upon their criminal code, which was Draconic in severity – crucifixion, for example, being a common punishment.”

The old “draconic” was eventually overtaken by “draconian” in the late 19th century. The newbie first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1876, in a description of a London church service where it appeared to mean merely strict or unvarying:

“The Swedenborgian rubrics (if there be such things) are not so Draconian as those of the Establishment, but leave some little discretion to the minister to suit the wants of his congregation.”

The following year the word appeared in a book about Russia, where the phrase “Draconian legislation” was used to refer to brutal Czarist law.

I can’t tell you exactly when “draconian” was first used in reference to budgets. The OED doesn’t have any citations for this usage, but it has been around since at least the early 1930s and probably earlier.

A Sept. 12, 1931, article in the New York Times, for example, referred to “Draconian measures” adopted to balance the British budget. And a Nov. 15, 1925, article in the Times about a financial crisis in France mentioned “Draconian tax decrees.”

Coincidentally, both “draconic” and its successor “draconian” have had another meaning as well: dragon like! The word “dragon” comes from the Latin draco, derived from the Greek drakon, meaning serpent. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains:

“Originally the word signified simply ‘snake,’ but over the centuries this ‘snake’ increased in size, and many terrifying mythical attributes (such as wings and the breathing of fire) came to be added to it, several of them latterly from Chinese sources. The Greek form is usually connected with words for ‘look at, glance, flash, gleam,’ such as Greek drakein and Sanskrit darc, as if its underlying meaning were ‘creature that looks at you (with a deadly glance).’ “

The OED‘s first published reference to the dragon-like “draconic” is from Henry More’s Apocalypsis Apocalypseos: Or, the Revelation of St. John Unveiled (1680): ” ‘The great Dragon was cast out.’ … This … signified the destruction of the Empire as Draconick and Idolatrous.”

And in 1880, an article in the Daily Telegraph used “draconian” in the dragon-like sense: “In the course of one of these draconian performances … the mummer’s tail came off.”

Since then, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), “draconic” and “draconian” have gone their separate ways. “Draconian” now means cruel, while “draconic” means dragon like.

Before I drop the subject of dragons and brutes, however, I should mention that the name “Draco” also lives on in Draco Malfoy, the bigoted bully in the Harry Potter books.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.