What’s the meaning of the word procrustean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: procrustean…

Earlier this year I enjoyed reading A Story Larger Than My Own, a collection of essays (Janet Burroway, ed) that had been given as a gift to me from a friend and colleague. The purpose of the book? It offers writing advice from “mature” women  — i.e., those who are older than 50.

One of the essays I particularly enjoyed, “Metamorphosis” was written by Maxine Kumin, a American poet and writer, 1925-2014. In it she describes her transformation from a writer of light verse to a serious poet who has not only won a Pulitzer Prize but also a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award.

She also gave me my word of the week, procrustean. Here’s how she used it:

We were praised by many and damned by a procrustean few.

The adjective refers to something marked by arbitrary or ruthless disregard for individual differences or special circumstances. Here’s the etymology of the word:

Procrustes was a Greek mythological figure who had an iron bed on which he compelled his victims to lie. If a victim was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit. But if the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit. Talk about arbitrary and ruthless disregard for individual differences!