Back in 1910, the OED called talionic (“Of or pertaining to the law of talion, or to the rendering of like for like,” from lex talionis) “rare” and had only one citation (where it seems oddly misused):

1886   G. MacDonald What’s Mine’s Mine v   The growing talionic regard of human relations—that, namely, the conditions of a bargain fulfilled on both sides, all is fulfilled between the bargaining parties.

Now it seems to be… well, not everywhere exactly, but used in a lot of places as if its meaning is self-evident; a Google Books search gives “The Talionic Impulse originates from Biblical Principles,” “Judge Walter Williams of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is especially good at the art of talionic restitution,” “The obscenities of talionic conduct – if one can indeed dignify it with such a phrase – are as much in evidence in the British tabloid newspaper front pages screaming for vengeance […],” “If a nuclear talionic reprisal terminates nuclear violence, the process may be considered a kind of nuclear peacekeeping,” “Early in the evolution of humankind, the talionic impulse emerged […],” etc. It’s always interesting to me to see an obscure word climbing up the charts for no apparent reason.


  1. No apparent reason? I submit that the reason is because it’s in the OED (and probably copied from there into other dictionaries). Lexicographers like to pretend that they have no effect on language and that they are simply documenting usage, but that’s nonsense.

  2. That’s… an odd idea. The words following talionic in the OED are taliped, talipes, talipot, taliq, and talish (“Of the nature of a tale or story; fabulous”). Are you suggesting that they are all in frequent use? You might want to flip through the OED sometime; it should prove enlightening in a number of ways.

  3. It does look like there is a meaningful increase in the use of the term talionic in the 20th century:


    What’s weird is that it doesn’t seem related to use of the term ‘lex talionis.’

    Pretty strange.

  4. I can’t agree with your “used in a lot of places”. I’ve never heard of it.

    Neither is its meaning “self-evident” to me. (I’m writing before looking at the dictionary.)

    I don’t read British tabloid front pages, but I’m surprised such an obscure word would appear there. If it’s becoming suddenly popular, is that like the rise of ‘oxymoron’ (with a corruption of its previously useful sense)?

  5. George MacDonald was a minister, and it seems odd that he would have used the word without knowing its meaning. On the other hand, he does make a fair number of peculiar word choices in his writing. I am currently nearly finished reading The Princess and the Goblin to my seven-year-old, after not having touched the book for decades. (For whatever reason, it was not among the books I read to either of his older siblings.) The author uses some unusual word choices, but I have generally attributed these to his nineteenth-century Scottish milieu, rather than any disfluency.

    It appears that MacDonald was a believer in universal salvation (or at least reconciliation), that being the idea that all human souls would eventually, after strenuous purgative penance, be accepted into the bosom of the Almighty. I find it interesting that this allowed him to evade the theological issues that so famously troubled Tolkien. MacDonald’s goblins are derived from human stock, and thus possess souls, in spite of their being essentially universally villainous (at least at the time when The Princess and the Goblin takes place). Moreover, his conception that everyone would eventually be punished, by a sovereign either temporal or celestial, in correct measure for their own sins, may have influenced his thinking about the meaning of talionic.

  6. I can’t agree with your “used in a lot of places”. I’ve never heard of it.

    Neither is its meaning “self-evident” to me. (I’m writing before looking at the dictionary.)

    On the first count, I didn’t say it was used so widely everyone should have seen it; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it before. But to me, the wide range you see from the Google Books search qualifies as “a lot” compared to the OED entry, which suggests the next thing to a hapax.

    On the second count, I didn’t say it was self-evident, just that authors seemed to be using it as if it were (not giving, for instance, a parenthetical explanation).

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    MacDonald’s usage seems reasonable to me.

    The point about the lex talionis (and the reason for the name, of course) is precisely that it is not revenge: it is justice, conceived as equivalence: precisely that the punishment should be commensurate with the crime, neither less nor more. This is quite a common trope in Bible exegesis of such passages: the implication (rightly or wrongly, as you may think) being that the lex talionis represented a moral advance at the time. MacDonald would be well aware of this and would naturally think of the word in that way. Also, Scots appreciate bargaining, in a way that a mere Englishman may perhaps not.

    British tabloids dedicated to appealing to their readers’ worst impulses (i.e. most of them) would naturally prefer to imply that the word is just a fancy term for revenge. When such papers talk about “justice”, they have no concept of justice extended to the unpopular or anyone they choose to suppose undeserving, or anybody they have decided to encourage their readers to despise or fear.

    And most journalists are likely unfamiliar with the term lex talionis anyway.

  8. Ah, you’re doubtless right. I withdraw my aspersions on his usage.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Re bargaining, at least the Scottish are plain-speaking, unlike some:
    Mac Carthy had sworn his loyalty to the crown during the rebellion but he repeatedly refused to hand over the [Blarney] castle to the new president of Munster, Sir George Carew, coming up with a variety of excuses on each occasion….Queen Elizabeth I is supposed to have said, on receiving another self-justifying communiqué from Cormac Mac Dermot Mor: “Blarney, Blarney, I will hear no more of this Blarney.”
    Source: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/truth-behind-the-blarney-1.896922?mode=amp
    Wiktionary gives a different derivation for blarney. One could always ask the current Mccarthy Mór, but (a) the last Lord Muskerry was a Jacobite, so the title was retired, and there are several claimants ( see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthy_of_Muskerry) and (b) one could not be sure of obtaining a straight answer????

  10. Talion appears to be a character in a video game ‘Shadow of Mordor’ released about 5 years ago. Other than that, in the Guardian there’s one appearance ~11 years ago

    “Has any good purpose been served by heads rolling in Haringey yesterday, beyond satisfying the principles of talion law? “. [Baby P case, Andrew Cooper “is a professor of Social Work”] And the article (or at least the headline-writer) seems to have misconstrued it as ‘vengeance’.

    I’m sticking with “obscure”.

    The ‘Biblical Principles’ is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? And presumably capital punishment for a murder. Is that what a civilized society wants to call “justice”?

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Is that what a civilized society wants to call “justice”?

    Not in my book. But the point here is not whether it’s an adequate notion of justice: it’s the (vital) distinction between vengeance and justice (however imperfect.)

    British tabloids (and, alas, much of the British public, egged on by them) remain in a pre-talionic state in this matter. For them, “eye for an eye” would be a moral advance. They tend to be quite enthusiastic about punishing the relatives of offenders, for example …

  12. John Cowan says

    The McCarthy who refused to hand over Blarney Castle was an Irish, not a Scottish Mac Cárthaigh. Though the line is fine: James McCarthy, the football player, was born and raised in Scotland but plays on the Irish national team.

  13. “The ‘Biblical Principles’ is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?”

    That depends on which book you read; Exodus 21:23, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 give this law, but Matthew 5:38 replaces it with “turn the other cheek.” As usual, people quote whichever one they prefer.

  14. “Blarney” (talk) seems not to be documented as early as the time of Elizabeth I. Here is a 1746 footnote (g) in Gentleman’s Magazine XVI p. 529 to “Blarney-Tow’r” as a “rubbish” poem: “A poem, so call’d from Blarney in the county of Cork, no less famous for the candour and ingenuity of its inhabitants, according to the known proverb, [….]

  15. I am leaving this comment here, because it is about word choices by George MacDonald. I noticed yesterday, which I had not previously remembered, that MacDonald uses the word scrannel in his adult fantasy novel, Phantasies.* The word seemed unfamiliar, so I checked the OED, which defines it as: “Thin, meagre. Now chiefly as a reminiscence of Milton’s use, usually with the sense: Harsh, unmelodious.” Milton, in this case, is not Paradise Lost but rather Justa Edouardo King Naufrago (1638), which I was not familiar with. It is apparently a collection of poetic elegies in various languages, dedicated by the young Milton to his friend and fellow poet Edward King, who died young in a shipwreck. Milton’s use of scrannel is:

    Their lean and flashie songs Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.

    The OED does not have any citations prior to Milton’s, and he clearly popularized the term, although all the entry says explicitly about the etymology is: “Compare Norwegian skran lean, shrivelled.” Nearly all the subsequent uses cited in the OED (nine out of eleven) are indeed related to sound, characterizing voices or music. This includes MacDonald’s usage, describing the voices of a group of kobolds:

    Thereupon arose, on all sides, the most terrific uproar of laughter, from voices like those of children in volume, but scrannel and harsh as those of decrepit age, though, unfortunately, without its weakness.

    One more (“Time… which he spent in birdsnesting, making whistles out of reeds and scrannel straws [etc.]”) also seems to be an allusion to Milton, although it preserves the “thin, meagre” definition. The only unrelated usage listed by the OED is the second oldest (from Henry More in 1667): “As lank and scrannel as a Calf that sucks his Dam through an hurdle.”

    * I am never sure what MacDonald was hoping to achieve with Phantasies. It has very little over-arching plot and is mostly a sequence of vignettes, exploring various fairy tale motifs, as the narrator Anodos traverses Fairy Land. Along the way, he meets various wisewomen, frees an enchanted lady, makes friends and enemies of flower fairies and tree spirits, helps a knight redeem himself, and slays a marauding giant. At one point, MacDonald even inserts a supernatural story set in contemporary Prague; it is framed as something that Anodos reads in the library while he is in residence at a magical castle, but it really seems out of place. Perhaps I am expecting too much of a coherent storyline when I approach the book, since even the title suggests that MacDonald was primarily interested in just depicting a sequence of archetypal fairy tale scenes. Moreover, the text shows hallmarks of having been written entirely sequentially, with little to no editing, (such as—right around the encounter with the scrannel-voiced kobolds—the narrator belatedly mentioning that the caverns he had been traversing were not dark but actually partially lit, although he could identify the source of the illumination). However, I think Phantasies ultimately compares unfavorably to The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which is also mostly concerned with scenes from Elfland and its hinterlands, yet which contrives to pull together, out of the various fairytale encounters, a more coherent total narrative.

  16. MacDonald sounds like Leskov in being drawn to a more or less plotless series of anecdotes. It can be fine if that’s the sort of thing one’s in the mood for.

  17. January First-of-May says

    a more or less plotless series of anecdotes

    The thing is that such series tend to work better as a short story collection rather than a novel.

    (OTOH I do quite like the adventures of Iona Sheket, which are a plotless-ish series of anecdotes, flowing into each other, quite successfully masquerading as a single novel. Might depend on the genre.)

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Phantastes. (But you knew that.)

    Lilith has more of a plot (and is basically better.)

  19. MacDonald was capable of laying out a real novel-length plot though. He does so in The Princess and the Goblin, and I think it is no coincidence that that is his best-known work. However, even there he sometimes edges toward including disconnected fairy tale pageantry at times. Princess Irene’s king-papa seems like he should play an important role in the story, but he never really does; in fact, he sometimes seems more like a prop of the fairy tale setting than a character.

    @David Eddyshaw: Whoops! I just typed the name on autopilot. And you are right, Lilith also has more of a plot, although not as much as The Princess and the Goblin.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    MacDonald wrote quite a few straight novels, too (none of which I’ve ever got round to reading, though I actually have a copy of Sir Gibbie, somewhere.) Presumably they have a higher plot-to-anecdote ratio.

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