Lose labyrinthine and keep it bizarre

June 17, 2015
Photo: AP

The recent election in Turkey, where voters refused to grant a majority of seats in Parliament to any one party, creating the threat of political gridlock, could literally be called “Byzantine.” After all, Istanbul, Turkey, was once called Byzantium.

In fact, Byzantium’s history could also be called “Byzantine”: Its name remained on its empire for more than a thousand years after the city itself became Constantinople. But how did this great city come to be associated with what Merriam-Webster defines as “characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation”?

The Oxford English Dictionary says “Byzantine” was first used in English in 1937 to mean “reminiscent of the manner, style, or spirit of Byzantine politics; intricate, complicated; inflexible, rigid, unyielding.” But it was used earlier in French, in political and figurative contexts.

A few years ago, Slate had a great article noting that things in Byzantium, which was so called from about 660 BC to 330 AD, were not as bizarre as they seemed. Slate says the bad rap came from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Gibbon caricatured the history of the Byzantine Empire as little more than a series of shady backroom deals, backstabbing, and power grabs.”

Hmm. Sounds familiar.

A recent Bloomberg article made use of the word to describe some legislators’ pretzel-like maneuvers to try to avoid appearing to raise taxes, saying: “In Louisiana, Republican legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal are engaged in a byzantine debate about what constitutes a tax increase as they seek to close a $1.6 billion budget gap.”

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Another version of the article explained:

Jindal, a two-term Republican governor and expected presidential candidate, has threatened to veto tax increases unless legislators also pass a $350 million “offset.”

The arrangement is byzantine: It would create a fee for college students— [anti-tax crusader Grove] Norquist doesn’t consider fees taxes. Then, the state would give them an equivalent tax credit, which they would assign to the state’s university system, which would then in turn forgive the students’ fees.

Because the never-paid fees aren’t taxes, the equivalent credit can then be said to offset increases in taxes that actually would be paid, said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates policies that benefit low- and middle-income people.

“Byzantine” indeed. Except, as Slate pointed out, the Byzantine tax code was quite straightforward.

Perhaps the tax-that-isn’t-a-tax argument should be called “labyrinthine” instead. M-W says that’s a synonym of “Byzantine” (which is capped in most dictionaries, unlike “labyrinthine”). The OED says “labyrinthine” means “having or consisting of many intricate turnings or windings.” A maze, in other words. It entered figurative English in 1840 to mean “intricate, complicated, involved, inextricable,” the OED says.

Just as there once was a Byzantium, there was a Labyrinth, in myth at least. The inventor Daedalus built it to contain the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of a white bull and Queen Pasiphae. Daedalus gave the hero Theseus a thread to follow out of the Labyrinth, where Theseus went to kill the Minotaur. As punishment, Daedalus was himself imprisoned in the Labyrinth. To escape, Daedalus built wings of wax-covered feathers for himself and his son Icarus, and, well you know the rest: The overconfident Icarus flew too close to the sun, melted his wings, and plunged into the sea.

It’s a “Byzantine” tale, and “bizarre,” too. And while those words may seem to be related, they’re not. “Bizarre” is French, meaning “odd” or “fantastic,” though it originally meant “brave” or “soldier-like,” the OED says.

Maybe, rather than describing things as “Byzantine” or “labyrinthine,” we should just call them “bizarre.” Maybe that would lead politicians to “talk turkey.”

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.