Weird Words

Weird Words: Procrustean

“Procrustean” is a fun word with an interesting history.

According to Merriam-Webster, it means: “marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances”

The story the word come from is marked by someone who was precisely that.
Προκρουστης, known to us as Procrustes, is a figure from Greek mythology. He was a robber who invited travelers to his home, then, after supper, put them to bed. As his unfortunate guests would discover, Procrustes’ guest room’s bed was made of iron, and he was determined to make it fit everyone perfectly.

If a guest was too small for his massive iron bed, he’d tie their ankles to one end of the bed, and stretch them until they were the right size… tearing limbs out of joint in the process. In the unlikely event that a guest was too tall for his bed, he’d take his hacksaw and remove as much of their feet and lower legs, as was needed to make them the perfect length.

The name “Procrustes” itself comes from two Greek root words: “προ” (pro) meaning “in front of” and “κρουειν” (krouein) meaning “to strike” or “to beat”. These words paint the picture of a smith lengthening a piece of metal by beating it out.

A fellow who goes around murdering travelers doesn’t really add to the quality of one’s local community, but Procrustes got away with his crimes for quite a while by claiming to be the son of the sea god, Poseidon. Eventually, he was killed by another Greek who claimed divine parentage. Theseus, ostensibly another son of Poseidon, was the last person to stay in Procrustes’ home. You see, Theseus made Procrustes fit his own bed.

A procrustean policy is one that treats everyone the same, regardless of circumstances, with the implication that it does so in a way that is harmful. Of course, those complaining that a policy is procrustean are the people “the bed” doesn’t fit. If the policy fits most people, there will be few that find it procrustean in their experience.

What policies do you feel are procrustean?

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