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When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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