In a Word: Satrap

April 04, 2011|By John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun

Each week, The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. Use it in a sentence in a comment on his blog, You Don't say, and the best sentence will be featured next week.

This week's word: SATRAP

The vastness of the ancient Persian Empire made it necessary to appoint subordinate officials to administer local jurisdictions, and the title for these provincial governors or viceroys was satrap.

The original Persian was ksanthra-pavan, or "country-protector," which the Greeks and Romans rendered as satrapes. It became satrape in Old French and from there into English. It can be pronounced SAY-trap or SA-trap. My own preference is for the latter, because — purely as a matter of personal taste — I think that the short vowel packs more contempt than the long one.

The reason for contempt is that whatever dignity the "country-protector" may have enjoyed in Persia, the word satrap in English has come to carry a smell of low regard, a satrap being seen as a mere henchman. "Webster's Third New International," for example, cites a Newsweek reference to "Soviet leaders and their East German satraps."

Example: The Associated Press can muster all its satraps and minions, its lackeys and underlings and stooges, but there are people who are determined to write e-mail rather than email until you pry that hyphen from their cold, dead hands.

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